Embracing technology to maximise efficiencies was a core rationale of Sullivan Nicolaides Pathology (SNP) purpose-built main laboratory in Brisbane. This theme was continued with the installation of a PathFinder system to manage the automated flow of samples. Manufactured in Australia by Abbott partner Aim Lab Automation Technologies, PathFinder is a sophisticated and compact hub to manage sample sorting, storage, and tracking.
When SNP made the decision to purchase, they had no idea the system would allow them to successfully track and prioritise thousands of samples a day during a pandemic.
Mr Shane Byrne, Head of Molecular Pathology at SNP, was closely involved in purchasing decisions at the time of their new lab build.
"When we were making these decisions, we were figuring out how molecular genetic technologies could best complement traditional microbiological techniques, so there was huge technological transformation in pathology. Selecting laboratory infrastructure to meet immediate and long-term needs in this rapidly changing environment was a challenging project.
"The decision to purchase an Aim Lab PathFinder system has proven to be a good one. As test volumes swelled beyond anyone's imagination thanks to COVID-19, we've used PathFinder to turn the traditional flow of samples through a lab on its head, by programming it to store samples before processing. This has given us the power to know exactly where every COVID-19 sample is located, even when we're deluged."
The sharp increase in testing volumes led SNP to re-assess their understanding of what makes a test 'urgent'. Prior to the pandemic, the urgency of a respiratory virus test was dictated largely by individual patient characteristics, such as advanced age, or triggers found in clinical notes, or upon doctor request. When COVID-19 struck, almost every test request was marked urgent, even for those with no symptoms, because of the linking of results to freedom of movement.
Finding a clinically useful way to prioritise them was crucial.
Given the broader public health element to the pandemic, the team considered that the clinical urgency of a COVID-19 test was better determined by non-traditional characteristics. Factors including residential proximity to a known outbreak, having flown on a plane with a known positive case, essential worker status, underlying health challenges that increase the risk of severe illness.
Mr Byrne says, "By combining our bespoke lab database, with PathFinder's tracking capabilities, we have been able to store unprocessed samples, then quickly locate and run samples that have been deemed high-priority based on a wide range of factors. We generate our own internal priority lists based on triggers we think are important, but we can also quickly incorporate requests from the health department as they identify at-risk regions or individuals. I think this really helped Queensland avoid major outbreaks prior to the commencement of hotel quarantine, when there was a need to rapidly test international travellers who were already in the community."
Mr Byrne also points to PathFinder’s role in safely sharing samples between departments.
"A single swab in our lab may be used for both molecular analysis by my department, and bacterial isolation by our microbiology team. PathFinder also allows us to sort samples that are being pre-screened via rapid molecular testing and then follow up with re-sorting of the positive subset for classical microbiology culture to recover isolates where typing, or antibiotic resistance status is needed.
"The PathFinder has been and will continue to be a great asset to our workflow."