Devices & Technology

Robots in the Lab

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Suzi Birz, principal, HiQ Analytics, LLC

The pressure to do more with less presents a constant challenge in health care delivery. The search for a way to increase throughput, reduce costs and maintain or increase safety and quality led North Memorial Health Care, in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, to implement the Power Processor Automated Sample Processing System, manufactured by Fullerton, California-based Beckman Coulter. The system became the first fully automated laboratory in Minnesota.

“The laboratory processes specimens from the inpatient unit, as well as provides reference lab services for 188 different organizations throughout Minnesota,” explained Adam Grau, marketing representative from North Memorial. “This resulted in a total of more than 5 million blood tests processed in 2005.”

What is an Automated Lab?

Fifty manual steps were eliminated to create a new automation process. Lab test orders and blood samples arrive by the same method as before the automation. Each blood sample is labeled with a bar code that contains information about the specific tests that are needed.

“The sample is then placed on a conveyor belt, which resembles a train track,” Grau explained. “The machine moves the sample through the process and performs all the tests with no further human contact.”

Sharon Jackson, North Memorial’s director of lab services, added: “After being verified, the results are interfaced to the lab system and are available to the floor.”

Lab Staff Safety

The automation process helps eliminate lost, dropped or mislabeled samples. While safety precautions for the lab staff have long been in place, the automation takes care of the steps that pose a health risk.

For example, the device performs automated centrifugation and automated cap removal. The machine removes the cap from the tube, pours the blood and recaps the tube.

“The robot reduces the possible biohazard exposures,” Jackson explained.


With all tests seemingly on “stat” priority, how does a facility determine which one to process first? There’s no need to decide with North Memorial’s new automation system, which increases the test capacity from 90 to 300 tubes per hour and allows multiple tests to be conducted simultaneously on one sample. Samples are sorted into storage racks and are available for subsequent testing.

“While the machine is processing the sample, the technician can step away to verify the results and communicate to the nursing staff,” Jackson stated.

This consistent flow of results and shorter wait time have increased satisfaction for both caregivers and patients.

“Caregivers are notified faster of the need for recollection of samples,” Grau added.

Jackson said the change has had an important effect on the turnaround time for emergency room trauma blood tests, for which results are now available in just eight minutes. She also noted that with no change to the way the orders are placed, the way the samples are sent and the way results arrive to the floor, the only change to nursing is that results arrive quicker and more consistently.

“This is a big satisfier for nurses and patients,” she said.

Take-away Message

Jackson summarized the top three benefits of the automated lab system: “Improved turnaround time for the patient, improved safety for the lab personnel and a decreased chance of reporting results on the wrong patient.”

For more information, visit the Web site of North Memorial Health Care or Beckman Coulter.

© 2006. AMN Healthcare, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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