Analytics Lets Labs Offset Staffing Woes

Data reports generated by clinical labs can stem staff burnout and help better allocate resources

CEO SUMMARY: For hospital laboratories confronting worker shortages, data analytics can be useful for improving workflows and determining effective staffing levels. This information can also induce changes that may improve employee morale. Two experts discuss three analytics reports that should be available for clinical lab managers juggling staffing concerns. 

AS HOSPITAL LABORATORIES STRUGGLE WITH WORKFORCE SHORTAGES brought on by the Great Resignation and diminished interest in diagnostic careers, effective use of clinical lab analytics in real time can help boost staff efficiency and reduce burnout. 

“Data can often provide evidence that problems exist somewhere in a laboratory’s workflow—or even disprove perceived issues,” said Tim Bickley, MBA, MT(ASCP), CPHIMS, Vice President of Sales at Visiun. The company is a Labcorp subsidiary based in Ann Arbor, Mich., that offers lab analytics software. (See TDR, “HC1, Visiun, and Viewics: Analytics Market Evolves,” Feb. 28, 2021.) 

Tim Bickley at Visiun
Tim Bickley, MBA,
MT(ASCP), CPHIMS

“There are excellent analytics reports that our laboratory customers use to monitor staff hour by hour,” Bickley noted. “In real time, laboratory managers can take appropriate action when they assess staff performance.” 

“Staffing issues are just the latest reason for labs to have a clear view of their diagnostic and workflow data,” said Kathleen Ohrt, MBA, MT(ASCP), SM, Program Manager at Visiun. 

“Labs are data-rich environments and labs must always report test results and related data, regardless of what staffing concerns look like,” Ohrt noted. “As well, there is regularly the need for a lab director who needs some type of statistic 30 minutes before a meeting with his executives. 

“Lab supervisors get phone calls from doctors who don’t believe their potassium results and they want to see more,” she added. “Labs must also regularly provide data to the College of American Pathologists and The Joint Commission.” 

Ohrt and Bickley—who both worked as medical laboratory technologists early in their careers—spoke during a session at this year’s Executive War College Conference for Laboratory and Pathology Management. Their presentation was titled, “How Hospital Laboratory Analytics Helps Your Lab Optimize Staff Productivity and Minimize Burnout During the Great Resignation.” 

Generating reports might sound like an activity that will take up a lot of a lab administrator’s time. The key, Ohrt suggested, is to use automation to reduce the time needed to create the reports and to empower staff so they don’t have to rely on the hospital’s IT department.

“We had a lab client who needed to see the last six months of positive HCG results,” she recalled. “It took their hospital’s IT department five days to get those results back to them. That’s not productive for timely management action.”

Ohrt outlined three broad categories of reporting that clinical laboratories should consider:

  • Key performance indicators (KPIs).
  • Specialized productivity reports.
  • High-level specialized reports.

KPI-based Reports

KPI refers to a metric that indicates progress towards a goal. KPI reports can be automated and delivered daily to lead technicians and bench-level supervisors, allowing them to take rapid action if the lab falls short in a certain area, Ohrt explained. One common example is a report that shows the lab’s average turnaround time and volume for specific tests by the hour. 

Kathleen Ohrt, MBA, MT(ASCP), SM, Visiun
Kathleen Ohrt, MBA, MT(ASCP), SM

Ohrt described a hypothetical scenario in which a KPI report indicates that the turnaround time (TAT) for a troponin test was dramatically longer between midnight and 1 a.m. “The lead or supervisor will look at the factors that affect TATs. Did an analyzer go down? Did someone go off to a break when they shouldn’t have?”

A report like this puts the supervisor in a stronger position to respond if a physician calls to complain about slow turnaround, she noted. “It may only be one turnaround time to the emergency room, but the physicians may mistakenly say all of their turnaround times are off. Now the supervisor has a report to visually show them that it’s an outlier,” Ort explained.

Reports also can use the same underlying data to show how often the lab met established goals for these metrics. Another common KPI report ranks the tests performed in the lab by order volume, which saves the time needed to count the tests manually.

In the examples noted above, the KPI reports do not relate directly to staffing shortages. However, being able to report accurately about turnaround times could improve staff morale if steps are subsequently taken to improve turnaround.

Specialized Productivity 

Other data analytics, however, point directly to staffing issues. For example, specialized productivity reports can help lab managers and supervisors get a quick handle on metrics involving staffing, scheduling, test activity, and other areas without having to rely on gut instinct.

“When we talk about burnout, often there’s this extra time that the lab management staff has to spend compiling the statistics, while at the same time they must work the chemistry bench or draw blood in the outpatient lab for the rest of the afternoon,” Ohrt explained.

One example is a line chart for each month that shows the average number of activities by the hour, including patient collection, container shipment, accession, and testing. It might indicate that in the previous month, a big spike in the early morning was followed by a mid-morning drop. 

“Everybody has that big morning rush,” she observed. “But what is happening during that period? Is a courier not arriving in a timely manner? Is another department sending tests about which the lab is unaware?”

Productivity Assessment

Another example is a monthly workflow and productivity assessment that relates the average activity by hour to the number of technicians working during those hours. Ohrt noted that this could help managers improve staff deployment at different times of the day or make changes to courier schedules. 

“Can the lab bring in some of the outpatient courier specimens later in the day  to take advantage of having more staff on duty at those times?” she asked.

Ohrt also pointed to a report she found helpful as a phlebotomy manager that shows how many patients each phlebotomist saw per hour.

“It is common for phlebotomists to tell managers that they’re so busy and there’s nothing more they can do,” Ohrt said. “With this report, managers can pull up the numbers. This opened the opportunity for me to have a tough conversation with the phlebotomy team to say, ‘Tell me your definition of busy so we can come to an understanding of what is expected and what you’re capable of doing.’ 

“This is important, especially when the morning phlebotomy team is going room to room; something they can do much faster than the evening shift, which has to cover the whole hospital and the emergency room,” she continued. “Managers can tailor their needs for different departments or different times.”

High-Level Reports

High-level specialized reports take more time and are akin to conducting mini data projects. But they can also provide major benefits, such as justifying additional staff or suggesting process improvements.

One example is a staffing analysis that details how many employees—and how much time—it takes to perform specified diagnostic tasks for each hour of the day. 

“A manager can look at this report and say, ‘My activity falls off at this time of day, but my staffing level does not drop. Can we shift things to offset the activity gap? Can the lab bring in couriers later in the day instead? Can we shift staff hours to earlier in the day?’” Ohrt said.

For hospitals with multiple labs, or labs with multiple locations, other reports allow managers to compare the performance of one lab against another, such as turnaround times for a specified test. “This comparison allows managers to determine if they have best practices at one lab that they can bring to the other locations,” she explained.

Analyzing clinical laboratory data on its own will not solve lab staffing shortages or employee burnout. But the information presented in analytics reports can lead to changes that ease stress in useful ways. In turn, that improves staff retention while giving the lab additional tools to do more with the staff at hand. “This is one way that analytics can help deter staffing shortages,” Bickley said.

Hospital laboratory managers with seasoned analytics teams should be able to roll out similar reports quickly. Lab leaders with limited analytics resources will need to prioritize which data reports will be most useful at the start, working with either the IT department or in-lab data champions to create the automated reports.

Contact Tim Bickley at tim.bickley@visiun.com and Kathleen Ohrt at kathleen.ohrt@visiun.com.

Data Analytics Meets Lab Challenges

THREE THEMES HAVE REOCCURRED in The Dark Report’s coverage of the challenges facing the clinical laboratory industry: staffing shortages, pressure to cut costs, and new revenue generation. 

It is clear that data analytics can play a role in overcoming those obstacles. Our accompanying story about using analytics reports to fend off worker shortages is one example.

Earlier this year, The Dark Reportexplored how Jefferson Health used data analytics to determine that its anemia management program could be tweaked to bring in additional earnings. (See TDR, “Lab’s Anemia Program Brings in New Revenue,” June 27, 2022.)

We also previously reported how data analytics on test utilization at the Cleveland Clinic led to 160,000 less tests ordered over a seven-year period, resulting in cost savings of $5 million. (See TDR, “Cleveland Clinic Lab Has Multi-Year Test Utilization Success,” May 7, 2018.)

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