With $160M lab project, Michigan Medicine takes pathology out of the basement

Michigan Medicine has just opened a new consolidated pathology building on a former Pfizer campus in Ann Arbor. It is part of a $160 million project that included the renovation of its nearby hospital-based diagnostics lab. (Michigan Medicine)

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Pathology labs often find their labs relegated to the cramped, nether regions of a hospital.

But with Michigan Medicine's latest project, officials said they looked to IT companies and even cooking schools for inspiration as they began to rethink the way their diagnostic departments would do business in an era of precision medicine.

Earlier this month, they opened a new 140,000-square-foot pathology facility where they consolidated six different labs under a single roof. Located about three miles from its main hospital affiliated with the University of Michigan, the facility is part of a $160 million project aimed at providing more timely diagnoses to patients and improving clinical care while ultimately saving money.

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Pathology building.
(Michigan Medicine)

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"The cost savings will come when you reduce antibiotic usage or length of stay, you improve time to correct diagnosis—all those things ultimately reduce return visits, reduce mortality, those real tangible patient impacts are realized," said Duane Newton, director director of Clinical Microbiology and the faculty lead for the pathology relocation and renovation project.

Building a new place to work

With more than 6.4 million specimens of patient blood, saliva and tissue expected to be tested this year and a nearly 8% growth in tests, Michigan Medicine simply needed more capacity.

With the chance to start from scratch in their design, Newton said officials applied LEAN thinking to every part of the process of diagnostics as they designed the pathology lab, down to where they locate their sinks. Pathologists from different labs got together to agree on standard equipment they could use to reduce variation in processes and agreed on other design changes that reduced hundreds of steps.

Inside a nearby grossing lab, where pathologists take samples obtained from patients during surgery to prepare them for examination and diagnosis, workstations have been organized following the culinary example of mis en place, with magnets attached to the walls holding tools at the ready. Supplies are carefully organized and stored for efficiency.  

The microbiology lab has a massive, automated lab machine which shuttles petri dishes around on a conveyor belt like meals in a sushi restaurant, performing many of the tasks that used to be needed to be performed by humans.

RELATED: Expert predicts a nationwide shortage of pathologists in near future