Evaluating new automation solutions for the clinical lab is definitely one of the least favorite list of things for many medical directors and administrators, alongside transitioning laboratory information systems. Why? It is a complex and usually disruptive process that can span years from evaluation to full implementation. Moreover, a very large number of factors can influence not only the success and timeliness of an implementation, but also the quality and delivery of patient results. Consequently, institutions have to commit a lot of resources and expertise upfront to make sure they get it right when making the decision that will impact their performance for the next decade. No pressure whatsoever.

Yet most laboratory directors and managers will only complete an automation implementation a handful of times in their careers. So let’s face it: this is not easy, and most of us don’t like doing it, but we’re very thankful help was offered here this AACC Annual Scientific Meeting. Sunday afternoon, AACC University brought three experts together to teach us “The ABCs of Installing an Automation Line.

In the first part of the session Danyel Tacker, PhD, explained the process of selecting and evaluating chemistry automation solutions and highlighted some of the important factors to consider. The subject was nicely broken down into smaller parts. First, the lab’s wants and needs for the new system are organized by components, test menu, performance, workflow, other staffing/resource restrictions, and connectivity to other analyzers. Then come pros and cons for deciding between maintaining current instrumentation and switching vendors. Tacker also offered practical advice on how to involve staff and leadership in the selection process. Finally, she emphasized the need for data and communication to get resistant staff on-board with the transition. In the next part, Joshua Hayden, PhD, discussed how to construct a realistic plan for the project. “You cannot leave it to chance,” Hayden said.

He then explored the important parts of the planning process: creating a Gantt chart for installation and major dependencies and milestones; leveraging support from non-laboratory staff (such as facilities and LIS/IT); preparing standard operating procedures; and training staff and clinicians for the upcoming changes—all while maintaining and controlling documentation. Hayden’s final advice to directors and managers was not to get fixated on the go-live date. “What’s worse than missing your go-live date is a failed go-live,” he said.

In the final part of the session, Sarah Hackenmueller, PhD explained how to keep the plan in place, maintain momentum, and deal with the unexpected. She emphasized the importance of leadership and project oversight, communication, maintaining clinical service expectations, and minimizing impact to patients and physicians. Labs also must prepare for pitfalls by reviewing common issues that may delay implementation. When a vendor is not supportive, Hackenmueller recommends involving mediators and escalating early. Hackenmueller also recommended using several tools, including the Asana website, which helps with assigning and tracking internal tasks online, and Excel to organize and keep track of completed validation studies by analyte and instrument. Following these presentations, the speakers took questions from attendees who, like myself, were left with a greater sense of confidence and knowledge on how to lead an automation transition.