by Martha Heller

How IT enables the COVID testing operation at LabCorp

Oct 28, 2020
AnalyticsCloud ComputingIT Leadership

Chief information and technology officer, Lance Berberian, on how cloud and data strategy help the $11.5 billion company do science at scale.

Lance Berberian, chief information and technology officer, LabCorp
Credit: Lance Berberian, chief information and technology officer, LabCorp

Lance Berberian has an impressive track record as a healthcare and life sciences CIO. He served in the role at IDEXX and Quest Diagnostics for many years before joining LabCorp in 2014.

With the company hard at work on COVID testing and vaccine development, Berberian  found the time to talk about IT’s role at LabCorp and offer advice on working with the business and leading a team through a shift to the cloud. What follows is an edited version of our interview.

Martha Heller: What is LabCorp doing in the fight against COVID?

Lance Berberian: We are working on every stage of the clinical trials process and partnering with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to bring a number of vaccines and treatments to market. That’s one core part of our business.

The other is PCR (polymerase chain reaction) virus testing, which includes RNA sequencing to detect whether a person is currently infected with the COVID-19 virus, and a serology test, which looks for indicators that a person has generated antibodies against the virus.

LabCorp does science at scale. By the end of September, we’d done more than 15 million PCR tests, and we have labs all over the country that are half a million square feet, with analyzers performing virus sequencing at an incredible speed.

As CIO, how do you stay current on the clinical aspects of your business?

I’ve been working in healthcare and labs for the majority of my career, and that allows me to work well with our chief medical officer and chief scientific officer. Once in my career, when I was in a non-healthcare business, I really missed the science. I learned that business inside and out, but it just wasn’t as fun as healthcare.

Science is a lot like IT: if you stop learning, you fall behind very quickly. I have to do that on two subjects, but staying current on something is easier if you’re passionate about it. 

What are a few examples of how IT is supporting LabCorp’s agenda?

Much of what we are doing to fight COVID involves cloud computing. We have been able to bring new applications up much faster when we put our foot all the way down on the gas pedal with cloud. We launched our PCR test in the beginning of March, and within a week, we had a real-time operational dashboard that gave our business and clinical leaders a tremendous amount of data, with functionality updates twice a week.

We’re also offering patients several options when they need a test. For example, doctors can order a test on the patient’s behalf and have the test collection kit shipped to the patient’s home. With our at-home test collection offering, consumers can access several of our test kits. Our IT team has made these options possible and integrated these channels into our supply chain, labs, billing, health record systems, and our LabCorp Patient PortalTM app.

We are also working on a registry of de-identified patient data, where OCR (optical character recognition) and NLP (natural language processing) tools identify patterns in the data so that our scientists can learn more about the disease.

In robotics, we are building at-scale robots, which take up 7,000 square feet of space and process 250,000 test tubes in an eight-hour shift. This robot, called Propel®, is the result of design, mechanical, electrical, and software engineering, all working together really efficiently. 

You mentioned that cloud computing has been important to LabCorp. What is your advice on moving into the cloud?

Most IT people intuitively dislike the cloud because they assume that if the servers go away, they will lose their jobs. It is important to let your team know that their job will shift to managing the cloud environment with as much diligence as they use to manage an on-premises environment. As CIO, you will still need to add experienced cloud engineers to the team, but the first step is to win the hearts and minds of your existing team.

Data is the lifeblood of LabCorp. What learnings about data can you share?

Executive committees usually agree when their CIOs tell them that data is important. But those executives don’t always know what to do with the data. The problem is that IT organizations know how to govern, manage, standardize, and surface the data. But that’s where their knowledge often stops.

So, CIOs need people on their teams who have their own ideas about the value of the data and can show their business partners more than a blank sheet of paper. For example, when we were building the first version of our COVID dashboard, I met with our informatics team and said, “The scientists will want to see the testing timeframe modelled in this way; they will want to compare infection rates between men and women, and see the data in age categories.”

We gave the scientists enough data in the pilot version that they said, “This is incredible. In the next version, I’d like to see X, Y, and Z.” If we had started with a blank page, we would not have been able to deliver the dashboard as quickly as we did. IT has to understand the business enough to get the conversation started.

Can you describe the responsibilities you have that extend beyond traditional IT?

In addition to leading in IT and informatics, I also lead our crisis management team, which I spend a lot of time on. I’m able to expand well beyond traditional IT areas due to the strong IT leadership team we have at LabCorp.

What is the key to building that kind of leadership team?

I look for people with a variety of skills and backgrounds and expect my team to do the same. I want a product development leader who “runs too fast” and a core systems leader who is more conservative. I want super technical people as well as people who are very knowledgeable about our business. But I need the team to be more than just a composite of people. My job is to set the vision and foster a collective force that is more powerful than I can ever be as CIO.

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