by Jason Roberts, Contributing Editor, American Clinical Laboratory
In an era of health-care industry downsizing, cost-cutting is the goal, and state-of-the-art computer information system (IS) technology is the tool of choice. Large healthcare institutions are arming themselves with these tools to streamline their operations, enhance their competitiveness, and deliver quality care at the lowest cost. However, such tools come at a hefty price—the big-budget IS software solutions used by these institutions can run into millions of dollars, leaving less well-funded facilities out of the loop.
As clinics and hospitals struggle to maintain revenue and contain their costs, they face decreased funding for clinical laboratory services, forcing laboratories to consolidate, reorganize, and downsize. In turn, these laboratories are also striving to keep pace with an increased workload associated with test processing, result reporting, and high-volume data storage, while simultaneously being hamstrung by employee cutbacks and outmoded tools. Adding to their dilemma are the increased documentation requirements driven by quality control and regulatory concerns.
The obvious solution is a specialized laboratory information system (LIS) that would enable laboratories to manage their data, maintain quality, and improve efficiency, while focusing their limited labor resources. LIS solutions give laboratory technologists tools and a database structure specific to their workflow that stores patient demographics, test orders, and results. As a result, manual entry procedures are minimized and data flow is automated by LIS software. This automation centralizes laboratory information, reduces errors, and makes the retrieval of testing information fast and easy from a centralized location. More than just a tool for laboratorians, LIS solutions can be configured to share data with an organization’s central computer system, permitting a detailed track of a patient’s activities and health status from the time he/she is admitted through diagnosis and treatment.
Polytech® (Comp Pro Med, Santa Rosa, CA) is such a system. It is a flexible, industry-proven LIS solution that helps laboratories increase productivity, reduce costs, and improve services to clients. From test order to final report, the system streamlines test processing, ICD-10 coding, and reporting processes with an intuitive, user-definable interface that conforms to typical laboratory procedural and workflow pathways. The system interfaces a variety of clinical instruments used in modern laboratories and automates quality control across analyzer types and laboratory departments. Comprehensive and cost-effective, the system performs patient and specimen data acquisition and is able to generate final, interim, and cumulative reports on patients from the initial requisition entry to final reporting.
Laboratory managers overwhelmed by mountains of paperwork will appreciate the ability of the system to computerize the laboratory environment. With a standard data storage capacity of over two million patient records and 80 million individual test results, Polytech eliminates traditional paper files and their storage problems, while still maintaining compliance with governmental regulations and Clinical Laboratory Improvement Act (CLIA) license requirements.
Ken Brownlee, Laboratory Director at Laurens County Hospital (Clinton, SC), said that when his staff people were working with a paper system, they had to buy large numbers of manila folders and rent off-site storage that was filled with boxes of records. Brownlee is required to store this laboratory reports for two years, but that is not a problem, since Polytech holds up to ten years’ worth of patient data online.
Although Polytech shares similarities with file server systems, the program is actually a self-managing, multi-user network. The system operates using a redundant distributed database topology called MedLink® that automatically distributes and synchronizes patient databases on each workstation ion a laboratory’s network. This is an important fail-safe feature, designed to prevent catastrophic data loss, system performance degradation, and network failure. If a computer in the system fails, all data files are still active and retrievable from other workstations, minimizing downtime and eliminating patient record loss. Afterward, the repaired computer will seem as though it had never been down.
The LIS interfaces laboratory analyzers, allowing laboratory technicians to order test data from any workstation. When testing is completed, results are uploaded to the system automatically, or manually entered through its data entry user interface. A technologist then evaluates the results and releases them for interim, cumulative summary, and final reporting use. Brownlee explains that he uses the system to create a summary of patient test results so that doctors and nurses can track the changes in a patient’s health status over a specified period of time.
Another benefit of the LIS is its ease of use; laboratory technologists can immediately access any part of the program via pull-down menus. Patient demographics, test requests, and results are all displayed on a single screen. Technologists perform 90% of their work at a centralized location in the program. The system also saves time by giving technicians direct access to the data they need instead of forcing them to scroll through multiple menus and screens.
All laboratory charges are accounted for in Polytech’s patient charge summary module, which tracks each patient’s laboratory work and the related charges. When the work is completed, a charge summary report is produced for each patient. This information can be printed or sent electronically to the accounting department for bill processing.
Julie Dacus, Laboratory Manager at Carolina Multi-Specialty Associates (Greenville, SC), illustrated how the system has actually saved her facility money by tracking test data accurately so the patients were correctly billed for every test ordered. She explains that because Polytech records and accurately reports every test, her staff never loses charges, and they have significantly increased revenues, reducing associated billing department labor costs, and are able to submit laboratory charges to their fiscal intermediaries on time.
Clients who have questions or technical support issues can call Comp Pro Med and talk directly with a technician who can “run” the system from the company’s support headquarters.
The technical support has been described as helpful, thorough, and supportive. Brownlee states that the company not only built the system but actually called later to find out if the system was producing the results the client wanted, which is very unusual in the IS field.