Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Lab Automation vs IT Centralization

Over the past decade I have witnessed two trends in clinical lab computing which I think are two sides of the same coin:
  • Lab process automation is going down
  • IT is centralized, becoming more consolidated and less Lab-specific
 By "Lab process automation" I mean identifying repetitive tasks performed by humans and transferring those tasks to a computer or computers.

By centralized, I mean that the IT which serves the lab is now generally the same IT which serves all other parts of the organization.

I can see the appeal, especially to bean counters, of centralization: more control by execs, economy of scale, etc. But most of the IT groups I encounter are really all about office automation:
  • email
  • shared files
  • shared printers
  • remote access
These are all great if you are running a typical office, which is how everything seems to look from most C Suites.

Alas, the clinical lab is far closer in basic structure to a manufacturing plant than to a law office. Typical corporate IT is not good at process automation:
  • receiving orders
  • receiving specimens (raw material)
  • matching up specimens and orders
  • doing the assays (processing raw material)
  • serving up results (delivering finished product)
At the bench, email support and file-sharing are not very helpful; powerful and speedy instrument interfaces, audit support and throughput analysis are all much more helpful.

But centralized IT is not only oriented away from this kind of business process automation, they are punished for it: why are you spending time and money on lab-specific projects? If you get email to work on your boss's boss's boss's iPhone, you are a hero. If you figure out how to alert bench techs to specimens which need a smear, you are spending too much time in the lab.

Worse, as corporate IT completes its transition into being mostly about vendor management, the idea of doing what the vendors cannot or will not do--plugging the gaps between off-the-shelf products which gaps cause so much of the needless drudgery in lab work--becomes first unthinkable and then impossible.

Farewell, lab process automation: perhaps vendors will some day decide the interoperability is a goal and then you will live again. But I am not betting on it.

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