Managing Labs in Two Dimensions in 2021

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EXPECT 2021 TO BE JUST AS CHALLENGING A YEAR for lab management as was 2020. This will be true not only because of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Other important factors will complicate the operation of clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups in the new year. 

One reason is the lab management duality that I described in the last issue of The Dark Report. Today, lab administrators and pathologists manage their labs to meet dual objectives that often conflict with each other. One objective is to perform COVID-19 tests in growing volumes. The other objective is for the lab to provide all the regular routine, reference, and esoteric testing that is needed by referring hospitals, physicians, and other clients. 

All signs indicate that this unique management duality will continue well into 2021. The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus continues to mutate, and physicians struggle to understand if the new strains are easier to transmit and more virulent when they infect individuals. Clinical labs on the front lines will continue to perform the COVID-19 tests necessary for providers to diagnose and treat infected patients. 

Another challenge confronting labs is the ongoing shortage of key instruments, test kits, and essential lab supplies. The supply shortage is acute and hinders the ability of labs to perform both COVID-19 tests and the daily intake of other specimens from patients undergoing care for other conditions. 

While all this is happening, labs will continue to provide the daily flow of lab test results needed by the hospitals and physicians they serve. But the daily workflow will not be normal, since providers must diagnosis, treat, and monitor patients for the typical range of diseases and health conditions while also watching those patients for SARS-CoV-2 infections. 

One big unknown in 2021 is whether vaccines for COVID-19 will prove to be effective at preventing or greatly reducing the number of infections. Most lab leaders are working with their parent hospitals, health networks, and regional healthcare officials to anticipate the need for serological testing in support of vaccination programs. This requires advance planning while working to lock in adequate supplies of collection materials and test kits. 

Collectively, these developments mean that lab administrators and pathologists can expect to be managing in two dimensions well into 2021. 

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