There has been a major push in the healthcare industry to improve access to services such as lab testing for underserved communities. Industry partnerships are one solution to such access challenges, with one recent example including Atalan, a partnership between Froedtert Health, Wisconsin Diagnostic Laboratories (WDL), and HealthEco. Atalan CEO Steve Serota, MSc, who is also president and COO of WDL, discusses how the recently announced partnership came to fruition, the key technologies it is making use of, and how he expects the trend of improving access to progress.
Q: How did the Atalan partnership come about?
A: In June 2020, Wisconsin Diagnostic Laboratories, HealthEco, and Spivey & Company, Inc. [consulting firm] started working together to solve the challenge of connecting the reservoirs of employee and infrastructure capacity at hospital and academic labs to the need for high-value, patient-centered laboratory medicine, with the goal of improving patient care and expanding access in health care.
In doing so, the organizations recognized that lab medicine has been an underrepresented subcomponent of medicine but is foundational to all clinical care. Physicians and patients who have access to high-value lab medicine have a distinct advantage to care and outcomes.
Together, the partners created Atalan, a technology-enabled clinical partnership providing doctors and medical centers access to a vetted network of the nation’s foremost clinical laboratories. This partnership combines access to comprehensive testing with the support of subspecialty pathologists to help clinicians and laboratorians determine diagnostic needs and interpret results. Atalan delivers the scope, scale, and innovation needed to improve patient outcomes through access to the best in laboratory medicine.
Q: What challenges, if any, did the various partners run into in setting up the partnership and how did they address these challenges?
A: One of the major strengths of our partnership was our full mission alignment. As a result, the majority of the bumps in the road we faced were centered on prioritization and alignment of large organizations. Having and empowering internal champions smoothed out many of these issues.
Q: What key technologies does the partnership make use of?
A: Through Atalan’s Access Hub, doctors, medical centers, community hospitals, and health systems can utilize tools and dashboards to tap into laboratories in the partnership’s network and monitor lab testing activity.
Atalan provides configuration and ongoing maintenance for interface between Access Hub and any participating lab’s information system. Software features include:
- Enterprise connection (HL7/API to Access Hub)
- Access to Atalan member’s test compendiums
- Ability for labs to select tests to use from Atalan
- Ability to configure tests to be offered to Atalan members from your lab
- Basic order and results tracking and resolution
- Directed messaging between lab partners
Q: How does Atalan work?
A: Atalan uses a centralized hub allowing clinicians to order a test through their LIS [laboratory information system]. The order is then routed to a selected lab on the network that has the capacity to fulfill it. The results are returned through the LIS, making the entire process easy to use and streamlined. The real difference comes in the one-to-many interface that allows a single interface with the hub to translate into interfaces with multiple partner laboratories. Additionally, we have developed a full suite of functionality to manage the laboratory relationships.
Q: What sets this partnership apart in how it is solving challenges in healthcare services access?
A: Our directed focus on creating opportunity for local labs to optimize their services for their communities. We believe that sustaining local laboratory infrastructure is essential to ensuring patients have appropriate access to clinically relevant turnaround time.
Laboratory medicine is fundamental health care. Doctors rely on diagnostic tests to craft care plans. Patient outcomes often depend on how effectively and efficiently the provider and the laboratory can communicate. But the reality is, many doctors and rural hospitals are simply unable to access the breadth and depth of expertise found in leading subspecialty laboratories. As a result, patients in rural and underserved areas often experience barriers to laboratory services that limit their ability to receive the care they need.
Atalan is a first-of-its-kind partnership and resource for streamlining this connection. The partnership helps patients get the diagnosis they need and creates a new level of collaboration between pathologists and laboratory scientists through alignment and technology tools. Atalan allows any provider, anywhere to access the highest quality of diagnostics without having to buy expensive equipment, hire pathologists, or lose access to their patients.
With our network, academic medical centers, community hospitals, and health systems have access to continuity of care, novel diagnostics, and best-in-class expertise without interruptions to their current laboratory operations.
And, Atalan’s network does this in a way that supports local labs instead of forcing them to sell or close. It provides a way for laboratory leaders to change the laboratory from an expense into a revenue center for a health system.
Q: What do you find most exciting about the partnership?
A: The pressure on laboratories is building. The evolution of health care has placed an increased emphasis on precision medicine, making the diagnosis of diseases and illnesses, treatments, and prevention more effective, proactive, predictive, and precise. This can lead to increased complexity and substantial gaps in care.
We believe that connecting, empowering, and enabling clinical laboratories to expand their reach and foster collaborative innovations will drive the healthcare industry forward, impacting clinical care today and into the future. Laboratories are the critical first touch for patients and the cornerstone of modern health care, responsible for delivering accurate, safe, timely, cost-effective, and quality test results and clinical interpretations. By connecting a vetted network of the nation’s foremost medical laboratories, we are creating sustainability and resiliency, fostering innovation, and driving collaborations that will shape the future of laboratory medicine. And by expanding patients’ access to optimized testing and subspecialty expertise with Atalan, we can improve clinical care and outcomes today.
Q: What advice do you have for labs who are considering entering into a partnership similar to Atalan?
A: Ensuring systemic alignment and a full understanding of the mission, vision, and values of a partnership is imperative. Unfortunately, acquisitions and buyouts often come cloaked as partnerships, and it is often not until after execution that the true nature of relationships is revealed. Deep due diligence is very important to understand the near- and far-term impacts of a partnership. Finally, know your worth both intrinsically and financially. Laboratory medicine may be seen as an afterthought in many organizations, but it doesn’t have to be in yours.
Q: How do you think the trend of improving access to clinical lab and other healthcare services will progress moving forward?
A: Unfortunately, COVID forced us all to witness what happens when a healthcare system lacks a resilient and decentralized but connected laboratory infrastructure. If there was a single bright point that came out of the pandemic, it was that it reinforced what many of us in the industry already knew: laboratory medicine is foundational and access to high-value laboratory medicine is essential.
While many trends in health care are fleeting, the expansion of access to critical healthcare services is one that will endure. We must, as an ecosystem, innovate to expand leveraging new and novel approaches and technologies to further our reach. Additionally, it will be more and more clear that no organization or institution can do this alone. Instead, we must come together with mission-aligned partners to structure sustainable access. Sustainability will ultimately be the key as divergent financial incentives will encourage regression unless we can establish value in expanded access.
Q: Was there anything you wanted to add?
A: The evolutionary arc of health care has crested, moving directly toward evidence-based clinical care plan design. This places laboratory medicine and other diagnostic tools at the nexus of optimized patient care. The need for greater access to these assets will require continued investment and expansion. This, paired with a skilled labor gap, creates a rapidly approaching inflection point. Partnerships such as Atalan provide a sustainable path to addressing this pressing challenge.
Steve Serota, MSc, has worked to optimize patient-centered laboratory medicine for nearly two decades. As president and chief operating officer for Wisconsin Diagnostic Laboratories, he oversees an organization performing more than seven million tests annually with test capabilities matching the largest labs in the world, providing expert academic care in every community. He also managed Surgical Services, Specialty Pharmacy, and Laboratory Services for Northwestern Medicine, and previously led Perioperative Services for Rush University Medical Center. Steve has a Master of Science in Health System Administration from Rush University.