However, as 2020 progressed, the medical laboratory industry mobilized to meet the need. According to data from revenue cycle management and lab informatics firm Xifin, as published in Modern Healthcare: “Across the lab industry as a whole, as of Dec. 12, 2020, total testing volumes were 245 percent of baseline testing volumes… molecular testing labs have led the way, with volumes at 538 percent of baseline…and pathology, clinical, hospital, and toxicology lab volumes at, respectively: 143 percent, 226 percent, 218 percent, and 267 percent of average baselines.” In addition, there was tremendous innovation in the form of at-home testing for COVID-19, which allowed patients to test from the safety of their own homes. This level of growth and innovation is impressive from both leadership and operational points of view, and has played a critical public health role in helping slow the spread of the virus.
The availability of widespread next-generation sequencing (NGS) testing has also played an important role in the COVID-19 response. NGS has proven to be a fast, scalable, and economic method for COVID-19 testing. One of the key reasons NGS has played such an important role is the ability to use existing, general testing equipment. The same Illumina NextSeq or NovaSeq that is already in use for cancer or hereditary risk testing can now be used for SARS-CoV-2 testing by simply using a specific assay and new set of primers. The purchase of a new machine can be utilized for more than SARS-CoV-2 in the future. Generally speaking, the same infrastructure and the same trained personnel can therefore rapidly deploy COVID-19 testing while continuing other lab operations. As an industry and society, we have long benefited from the power of general-purpose tools becoming as powerful as the specialized, single-purpose tools they replace, such as our iPhone cameras replacing most specialized camera uses – ditto for GPS, calculators, and the alarm clock. In this amazing response we have witnessed, not only have labs scaled up rapidly but also, in many cases, they have done it in a way that provides flexibility and capacity for the future.
Providing high-quality health care requires the coordination and performance of a diverse chain of organizations and technologies but at the heart of it all is the people. This week is a great opportunity to recognize the often unsung laboratory professionals we rely on.