JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- The first totally automated lab in the Department of Defense was unveiled to staff and guests at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Madigan Army Medical Center on Aug. 23.

The automated lab equipment has a price tag of $700,000; Madigan is only one of eight facilities in the country with this new capability -- not even Johns Hopkins or the Mayo Clinic has this level of automation yet, said Madigan Commander Col. Michael Place.

"This is the kind of innovative work that we've done around here at Madigan for some time now … this particular system is not only a DoD pilot, it is one of the leading ones in the country," said Col. Place.

He called the lab staff the quiet professionals of the hospital, working behind the scenes to run 2.6 million tests a year. The lab's previous instruments only allowed 1.8 million annual tests, while the automated lab has a capacity of up to 4 million tests each year. The new lab equipment is truly robotic, as it will assess itself and give notifications if it needs repairs, said Place.

The new lab instrumentation also allows Madigan to conduct 20 additional tests, to include the Anti-Mullerian Hormone (a fertility marker), procalcitonin (a marker for bacterial infection), and nicotine metabolite. With the new automated equipment, test results will come back faster; while tests took one to six hours before depending on their priority levels, now every lab test should be completed within an hour, said Maj. Bob Nadeau, deputy chief for Madigan's Core Lab.

The improvements in the lab should also lead to more timely patient care and medical decisions.

"Doctors make decisions based on lab results, so this allows us to get them results much faster and with much more accuracy," said Nadeau.

When Madigan transitions this fall to MHS GENESIS (the Department of Defense's new electronic health record), the lab will be able to use its new instrumentation to its highest potential. Lab results which fall within normal ranges will automatically feed into MHS GENESIS without a need for lab technicians to manually certify them. When the results fall outside of these ranges, laboratory staff will be notified and will further address those results.

"This is actually what you need for MHS GENESIS; we needed the new instrumentation to be able to provide that less-than-an-hour turnaround time for all testing," said Nadeau. "It will allow us to do a lot more for a lot less, and the idea is that this is going to be the model for other labs that implement MHS GENESIS."

The transition to the new equipment took 10 months; laboratory staff made sure that they offered 100 percent of their tests and services during that time, said Place.

"In order to do this, it took incredible coordination with facilities, (Information Management Division), regional contracting, and our vendors, and the lab did a fantastic job making sure that that happened," said Nadeau. "This is a completely new lab in 10 months."