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Automation in 2019: Friend or Foe?

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Perhaps it was 1984’s blockbuster movie, The Terminator, that ignited man’s fear of robots taking over the world. Or perhaps that fear is rooted in an instinctive paranoia that faces a future of unfamiliar territory with caution. Whatever the reason, technophobia is alive and well, and it affects many of the ways in which we feel about and integrate technology into our daily lives.

Not all of these fears are based in unfounded skepticism, however. In fact, it is not dramatic upheaval that most fear, but rather that their jobs will be lost to automated robots that may very well be quicker and more efficient at performing them.

But has the introduction of automated technology really brought about a future wherein humans are ineffective in the workforce? So far, most signs point to no. According to Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg, a Chief Economist at the World Bank, the rise of automation has had a negligible impact on jobs at a global scale. In this article, we take a look about how automation has changed the medical field, at both an industry and worker level. 

Identifying a Need for Automation

When most people think about automation, it is often in the context of replacing an otherwise human workforce. It is less often that automation is acknowledged as a solution for a staffing shortage, although an increasing number of automated technologies are doing just that.

According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical laboratory technologist and technician employment is expected to grow by 13 percent between 2010 and 2020. However, the rate at which qualified laboratory professionals are retiring is on the rise. Not only that, but the number of laboratory training programs offered to novice workers has decreased by nearly 25 percent since 1990. If these trends persist, it is unlikely that the influx of newer professionals will be sufficient to satisfy the labor demand.

This problem is exacerbated by recent policy initiatives—namely, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Protecting Access to Medicare Act (PAMA)—that have pushed for healthcare facility consolidations. These initiatives have forced laboratories to reduce costs, maximize revenue, and increase testing volume to compensate for the loss of capital. In light of this, lab managers are looking for new solutions to sustain laboratory operations with less financial and staffing support.

Redefining Automation as a Friend

To address the growing list of hurdles that impede laboratory workflow, many lab managers are turning to automated technologies to support lab operations. One effective example is robotic process automation (RPA). Through RPA software, lab workers can assign bots to replicate entire processes that would otherwise be performed by staff members. This might include recording data, performing calculations, generating reports, and interacting with software as a human typically would, among other functions.

Since many of these operations can be laborious and time-consuming, they can be prone to human error. With an automated system in place, all calculations and recordkeeping will be free from inaccuracies and delivered almost instantaneously from the moment they are assigned. RPA also incorporates machine learning to adapt to processes and can be taught to expand upon its repertoire of abilities as needed. 

A Case for Automation

While more and more laboratory managers are becoming receptive toward technologies that facilitate workflow, many report difficulty in securing funding for automation while under financial constraint. Typically, investments in technologies that are not thought to directly impact patients are met with scrutiny. However, by being able to detect, diagnose, and monitor diseases quicker and more accurately than their human counterparts, technologies like process automation software have shown themselves to be considerably valuable in the workplace. In fact, most lab workers argue that increased investments in lab technology can lead to overall cost savings and increased revenue, thereby justifying the price of implementation.

While laboratories have demonstrated considerable financial gain, the benefits of automation are not limited to the medical field. Whether it’s an instance of wanting to be better equipped to manage throughput or assist with everyday manual operations, automation is looking a little less like the threat we once thought it was, and more like an answer for many.