Science & Technology

Conveyor Belt at New Royal Adelaide Hospital Microbiology Laboratory a Path to the Future

It might resemble a sushi train but this high tech conveyer belt could really put you off your dinner.

The dishes here are more likely to contain blood, urine or wound dressings than raw fish and rice, and instead of soy sauce and wasabi, you might pick up a plate of meningococcal, pneumonia or even flesh-eating bacteria.

The conveyer belt is the centrepiece of a new microbiology laboratory at the new Royal Adelaide Hospital.

SA Health claims it is the largest and most advanced fully-automated system of its type in the Southern Hemisphere.

The technology — known as the BD Kiestra Total Lab Automation — will process more than 400,000 patient specimens each year

The robot takes on tasks previously performed manually by scientists and clinicians — placing samples of blood, urine or wound swabs into plates of agar and transferring them to an incubator.

Once inside the incubator, the specimens are digitally photographed, allowing scientists to digitally diagnose from their computer screen.

Laboratory manager Rachael McKinnon said the automated system led to a safer and more efficient workplace.

“This truly is a game-changer for microbiology, and a perfect example of how technology can improve outcomes for patients and clinicians alike,” she said.

It can also significantly speed up diagnoses, according to clinical biologist Ivan Bastian.

“Previously we’d have been bringing those plates out onto these benches, leaving them there for an hour or two while we work through the day’s work, then putting them back into the incubator,” he said.

“Now they’re staying in the incubator the whole time and being digitally read on these screens, so that allows the bacteria to grow faster.”

Waiting times for some urine results have already reduced from 24 to 14 hours.

South Australian Health Minister Peter Malinauskas said the new system was already demonstrating value for money.

“Four million dollars gets us quicker results, more accurate results, which ensures that we get better patient outcomes here at the new Royal Adelaide Hospital,” he said.

“It allows us to utilise the most important resource that we have available to us at SA Pathology, and that is the muscle between the ears of our pathologists themselves.”

BD Kiestra Total Lab Automation staff worker

Job cuts to come

But putting some of the hands-on work of pathology into the arms of a robot may have a human cost.

The State Government in August shelved a controversial plan to restructure SA Pathology until after the March state election.

The restructure could have seen a third of the workforce, or 196 jobs, disappear.

Mr Malinauskas said any final decision on job cuts would only be made upon completion of a major review of pathology services.

“There are new systems to be learned. There are new methods that will be applied by our pathologists with technologies like this,” he said.

“The review is underway [and] we expect it to be completed by the middle of next year.”