Home 5 Clinical Diagnostics Insider 5 Expert Q&A: Clinical Lab Automation Trends and Tips for Implementation

Expert Q&A: Clinical Lab Automation Trends and Tips for Implementation

by | Feb 23, 2024 | Clinical Diagnostics Insider, Special Focus-dtet

Laboratory leader Ihab Abumuhor discusses recent lab automation-related developments and the keys to successful implementation.

Automation can help clinical labs solve key challenges, such as staffing shortages and reduced budgets. Advancements such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have added to automation’s capabilities in recent years. However, successfully implementing automation comes with its own challenges. Ihab Abumuhor, MSHCA, MSCS, MLS(ASCP)SBB, director of laboratory services at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, discusses recent trends in lab automation and how to overcome lab automation-related challenges.

Q: What are some recent lab automation trends?

A: To effectively address staffing shortages, it’s imperative to embrace automation; failing to do so means risking falling behind. Many current lab automation solutions integrate AI and robotics, remote monitoring, machine learning, advanced data analytics and cloud-based solutions. Our platform not only incorporates business analytics, aligning with the machine learning trend, but also offers cloud-based functionality. Cloud integration is significant as it often aligns with data security protocols, enabling swift disconnection in case of breaches. Moreover, cloud accessibility facilitates remote usage, such as accessing the lab automation platform from home. While AI and machine learning greatly assist in decision-making within labs, they’re not intended to entirely replace human involvement.

Q: How have these trends impacted your organization?

A: Everyone is trying to “Do more with less.” Automation serves as a catalyst for enhancing efficiency and productivity, enabling us to handle increased volume with the same staffing levels. Previously, expanding volume without automation necessitated additional staffing for each instrument. With automation, specimen processing becomes streamlined, although it requires skilled personnel for troubleshooting, monitoring, maintenance, validation, and correlation and verification studies. It’s crucial to note that medical lab scientists won’t be replaced; they remain essential for all the tasks mentioned including training and ensuring timely competency assessments.

Additionally, automation can contribute to cost savings without compromising quality. Demonstrating value to our administrative team involves showcasing how we can optimize quality while reducing expenses. This underscores the importance of maintaining high quality standards while concurrently seeking efficiency gains. Achieving cost reductions entails leveraging automation, AI, machine learning, predictive analytics and other automation features to handle higher volumes with existing staff, thereby maximizing resource utilization.

Q: What lab automation challenges has your organization faced?

Top 3 tips for solving lab automation challenges

1) Early financial planning
2) Comprehensive training for staff
3) Standardized processes for more efficient operation

A: The initial hurdle lies in the implementation cost, as these platforms come with a significant price tag. Preparation should commence years prior to implementation, necessitating a forward-thinking vision and administrative readiness, considering that the costs can soar into the millions. Incorporating the expenses into the budget, conducting a thorough return-on-investment analysis, and outlining the anticipated timeframe for realizing returns are essential steps. It’s imperative to account for both the scale of operations and the lab’s growth trajectory over the next five to 10 years, rather than solely focusing on current needs, to prevent the need for costly expansions shortly after implementation.

The second major challenge revolves around IT infrastructure and security. Involving IT personnel early in the project is crucial due to the significant role security plays in automation. Overcoming resistance to change and garnering staff buy-in are additional obstacles. Successful automation relies on a technical team that embraces troubleshooting and is enthusiastic about integrating automation into their workflow.

Maintenance poses another challenge, particularly for lines operating 24/7. Educating staff that lab automation requires ongoing maintenance and isn’t entirely hands-free is essential. Providing comprehensive training to equip staff with the necessary skills from the outset, and continuous training with vendors to stay updated, is vital. Effective training is key to maintaining staff morale, particularly when faced with frequent instrument breakdowns.

Q: What have been the biggest benefits you’ve seen from automation in your organization?

A: Increased throughput stands out as a primary advantage, as hospitals universally seek to handle higher volumes, facilitated by automation. Moreover, automation enhances the accuracy and reproducibility of results, leading to more reliable outcomes. Cost savings are also achievable through automation by leveraging existing equipment and staff for continuous operation, thus reducing the cost per test despite increased volume. Additionally, remote access emerges as a significant benefit, particularly in areas such as microbiology, where supervisors or medical directors can remotely troubleshoot issues or analyze results.

The business analytics capabilities of our lab automation platform offer further advantages. They enable us to assess staff productivity, monitor turnaround times, and predict potential machine downtime, allowing for proactive service dispatch.

Tips for a successful lab automation implementation

Involve all staff who could be affected. To avoid bringing too many people to meetings, bring different staff members to each one. “If staff tell you something, don’t neglect their input, ask why they are thinking that way.”

Do site visits at other labs that have implemented automation and get advice from other lab leaders.  

Address data security from the start, inviting all IT staff to the main discovery/kickoff meeting. “I’ve had projects where things got risky or almost failed, because we did not involve the right stakeholders in it.”

Communicate changes with other medical staff (physicians, nurses, etc.). For example, reference ranges, the name of the test, the different interface used, etc., could change.  

Have a strong downtime system and ensure staff are trained on it. “It’s critical to practice [the downtime plan] and not just have it in a procedure. You need to do training and competency on your downtime procedure.”

Q: What advice do you have for lab leaders who are considering implementing automation in their labs?

A: Prior to making decisions, it’s imperative to thoroughly understand the operations of your lab. Engaging your staff in the selection process is crucial, as they possess invaluable insights into the lab’s pain points, bottlenecks, necessary process improvements, and workflow dynamics. Additionally, they can assist in evaluating the requirements for automation. For instance, in California, compliance with specific equipment anchoring requirements is essential. It’s also advisable to consider automation solutions that offer scalability for future expansion. Starting with a smaller-scale automation implementation and gradually expanding the project can help alleviate concerns about automation.

Furthermore, it’s essential to plan for future growth when procuring automation systems. Ensuring that the selected system has the capacity to scale up allows for seamless expansion if necessary. Additionally, verifying whether the automation system can integrate with equipment from various vendors is crucial, as some systems may only be compatible with equipment from the same manufacturer.

Q: How do you expect the key lab automation trends to progress in the future? What should lab leaders watch for?

A: AI, machine learning, robotics, and automation are poised for continued expansion to address the challenges posed by increasing volume and staffing shortages. Given the constraints of lab space, I anticipate a trend toward smaller instruments to navigate these obstacles effectively. With the widespread adoption of cloud technology, there is potential for smaller, decentralized labs that aren’t necessarily confined to hospital settings. This could lead to the establishment of remote labs in various locations. As automation advances, there is likely to be a surge in demand for IT support, as the complexity of these instruments necessitates sophisticated IT infrastructure to operate effectively. It is my hope that future iterations of these instruments prioritize user-friendliness, as their current complexity can pose challenges for staff. Enhanced user-friendliness would empower staff to operate these systems more efficiently. Finally, space constraints pose a significant challenge in most laboratories. Manufacturing smaller equipment presents an opportunity for labs to expand within their existing space, thereby avoiding the added expenses associated with constructing new facilities or relocating to larger premises.


Ihab Abumuhor, MSHCA, MSCS, MLS(ASCP)SBB, currently serves as the director of lab services at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. Transitioning to this role three years ago, he brought over two decades of experience from Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, where he held the position of transfusion medicine associate director. His educational background includes a Master of Science in Healthcare Administration from California State University Long Beach (CSULB), a master’s degree in clinical science from California State University Dominguez Hills, and undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and microbiology. Notably, Abumuhor has contributed to various publications such as TRANSFUSION, Journal of Structural Biology, ISBT Science Series, among others. He holds a specialty in blood banking accredited by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) and serves as a part-time lecturer in the department of health and human services at CSULB.

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