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Self-directed regional networks: Connecting neighbors strengthens labs

The Pacific Rim Consortium met in person for the first time at the Hawaii Public Health Laboratory in March, 2019.

(Photo: The Pacific Rim Consortium met in person for the first time at the Hawaii Public Health Laboratory in March, 2019.)

How can a public health laboratory with limited resources sustain and expand its capabilities? One strategy is to leverage the resources and expertise of its neighbors.

With support from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), APHL is assisting with development of self-directed regional laboratory networks (SDRN) to facilitate collaboration and resource management among neighboring public health and environmental laboratories. SDRNs operate independently, establishing their own governance and strategic priorities based on their unique needs. Soon these networks will be linked through a Coordination Council, which will bring together representatives from each of the SDRNs for joint planning and resource development.

A growing community of networks

Today, 48 states and one territory, Guam, are members of an SDRN. The original SDRN was founded over forty years ago when laboratory directors in New England came together in the mid-1970s to share common concerns around newborn screening legislation then pending in multiple states. This group evolved to become the New England Public Health Laboratory Directors Group (NEPHLD), and then became NEEPHLD when it expanded its constituency to include laboratories responsible for environmental testing.

However, the regional model did not pick up momentum until a review by APHL and CDC demonstrated its value in the early 2000s. This provided the impetus to form the Northern Plains Consortium in 2006, the Southeast Consortium in 2015, the Mid-Atlantic Consortium in 2017, and the Midwest, Pacific Rim, Four Corners and Central Plains networks in 2018 and 2019.

Members “have our back”

SDRN member laboratories report many benefits from participation. Members share technical expertise, technologies and capacity, and they forge relationships with colleagues at other laboratories, making it easier to collaborate when emergencies arise or a testing system goes down. Emily Travanty, PhD, scientific director of the Laboratory Services Division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reports: “Our fellow consortium members have our back when we need them. For example, the Utah Public Health Laboratory did TB testing for us when our laboratory was in the midst of renovations. Because of them, we were able to still meet our test turn-around times and keep our customers happy.”

Members also collaborate on fundraising, informatics systems, training and leadership development, as well as recruitment and retention. According to Denise Toney, PhD, director of the Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services:

“The Mid-Atlantic Consortium provides a venue to share ideas, resources and expertise across our region so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. One project we worked on collectively was a compensation study, funded by CDC and APHL. Our members are using this data to educate their own state leaders about the salary levels needed to recruit and retain top-notch scientific staff in our region.”

SDRNs show strong prospects for the future, with planning in progress within and across networks. With sustainability a perennial challenge for state and local laboratories, that’s good news for public health.

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