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September 2013
Healthy Synergy
By Jenni Walker

     Physicians Choice Laboratory Services, or more briefly known as PCLS, is built on a foundation of synergy, vision and endless possibilities. These core values are why this cutting-edge laboratory exists today—literally.

     When Philip McHugh Jr. first set out with software developers Marcus Sowinski and Doug Smith, their goal was to create a company that would help laboratories improve their efficiency and their relationships with the doctors they served. They had no intention of starting a lab themselves, but rather to subcontract with laboratory partners.

     Out of the seven labs they approached, only two said yes. McHugh describes the relationships with both as “very challenging,” and says, “After six to nine months of working that way, we made the decision to open our own lab.” From there, PCLS was born.

     Today, PCLS is a premier clinical laboratory offering a wide spectrum of services ranging from testing and therapeutic monitoring to specialized programs.

     “I’m just a regular person who saw an industry and relationships [with doctors] that could be better,” remarks McHugh. While McHugh’s been successfully starting businesses since he was 17 years old, he had no lab experience when he co-founded PCLS.

     “I’m a big believer that it’s sometimes the person on the outside who can give a fresh look at something and do exciting things,” he explains.

     That philosophy and vision led McHugh, president and chief creativity officer, to build a strong leadership team starting with Joe Wiegel, who had a sales background and had sold PCLS its first laboratory instrument. Wiegel came on board first as a consultant and then as a recognized co-founder and president of operations.

     The team also included Mark Roth, vice president of operations. Reflecting on the early days as one of the company’s first employees, Roth recalls, “When we started out, there were very few of us, so everyone multitasked. It was like ‘all hands on deck.’ We all had the same mentality—do whatever we need to do to survive.”

     Then, the company then literally expanded overnight. After landing a large client, it went from being a 5-10 samples a day operation to 50-100 samples a day operation.

     “The 10- to 20-fold increase in business early on was a big deal,” adds Roth. “We definitely had to learn on our feet, but it helped us understand where we needed to be in terms of reporting and customer service.”

     The company’s accelerated growth is attributable in large part to the advent of more powerful prescription drugs whose metabolic effects are not fully understood, and also to an increase in their abuse.

     “There is a heightened need for testing to make sure people who aren’t supposed to be on drugs, aren’t in fact on drugs,” says Roth, “as well as to measure some of the unknowns about how the body is metabolizing these powerful drugs.”

     Since 2009, growth at PCLS has continued to accelerate at an unprecedented pace.

     “We were on a hockey stick growth pattern,” says Wiegel, remembering when he joined the PCLS team full-time and joking, “We were growing so fast that I spent my first three months hiring staff and finding parking spaces for them to park their cars.”

 

Synergized Health Care

     A primary goal of PCLS is to be a strategic partner for physicians and provide more than just reliable test results. They also want to help streamline operations and costs with proactive management solutions.

     PCLS testing services include toxicology, genetics and cytology. The company also offers specialized programs ranging from pain management to cardiology, with the goal of improving and streamlining patient care.

     A unique faction of the larger lab market, PCLS differs from a traditional lab by specializing in toxicology and performing urine and oral fluid drug testing for substance abuse programs and clinicians supervising patient pain management. It is also one of the first labs to offer Synthetic Cannabinoid testing and to test oral fluids and bath salts.

     Through innovation, PCLS has successfully created synergy between its two service lines. One includes supporting the pain management and narcotic prescription base to help a doctor ensure a chronic pain patient is compliant with their prescription medicine.

     The other entails providing personalized medicine—known as pharmacogenetics—to examine how an individual body metabolizes a specific drug and help doctors understand if the drug is going to provide the beneficial results they hope for. PCLS methodologies can detect more than 50 drug compounds and metabolites.

     Quality service and the differentiators built into its service help set PCLS apart from its competitors. A broad service menu includes IT connectivity solutions, fast turnaround time on lab tests, and a live customer service center. They also have the capability to run history on a physician’s patient population and assist physicians with compliance.

     “We go at this by trying to identify what value-added services we can bundle up with our testing to help the doctor provide better care,” explains Wiegel. “If we’re going to have any chance to survive in this turbulent world of health care, that is the one stable ballast that will help us navigate these waters.”

 

Efficiency Innovators

     One of the ways PCLS ensures quality service and efficiency is by building a strong team and providing thorough compliance training for employees. The average Science Department employee goes through six months of training before working independently.

     It also teams up with institutions like York Technical College to help with technician training. PCLS is currently working to leverage a similar workforce partnership with the North Carolina Research Campus.

     In addition, the company recruits specialized roles, such as Brent Dixon, Ph.D., NRCC, chief scientist at PCLS and a leading expert in mass spectrometry, which tests how patients metabolize medicines to help prevent adverse drug reactions.

     “In the clinical world, mass spectrometry is not necessarily used as routinely as other traditional clinical techniques,” says Dixon. “I was able to come in and increase throughput through automation and through reducing the runtime for each sample. We have also trained the staff to operate instruments more efficiently and consistently.”

     “Without adding any new equipment or staff, we were able to process twice as many samples with our existing equipment, and thus continue our marketing and growth,” marvels Roth about Dixon’s expertise.

     “I truly believe that it’s the leadership of Joe, Mark and Brent, and looking at things in a different way that can lead to exciting things,” adds McHugh. “To me PCLS is all about finding the right people, with the right vision and focus on the goal, and keeping everyone energized. If you can do that, then your future is endless.”

 

Ahead of the Curve

     In just four years, PCLS has transformed from just three employees and 400-square-foot office to 220 employees and a brand new $24 million 104,000-square-foot facility modeled after the Mayo Clinic Laboratory. Previously spread among seven office buildings in south Charlotte, the entire company is now based in Rock Hill, S.C., and is the first occupant in the city’s Riverwalk Business Park.

     “We are well ahead of our growth pace,” says Wiegel of PCLS’ plans to have 364 employees by 2017.

     The PCLS state-of-the-art lab includes Ultra-High Performance Liquid Chromatography in tandem with Triple-Quadrupole Mass Spectrometry (LC-MS/MS)—the most advanced technology in the drug testing world.

     “Investing in new technology is one of our strong points,” comments Wiegel. “We’re not afraid to invest in new technology that looks promising before it’s proven to be promising.”

     Adds McHugh, “By building a new facility, we loaded up on the technology to anticipate what we need in the future as best as it’s available today. Once you lay this foundation, there is so much you can do on top of it. It’s endless. It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s creative. It’s right in line with PCLS.”

     Case in point is the new PCLS Live that is currently being rolled out. Inspired by FaceTime and in line with its goal of improving physician relationships, PCLS has created a sophisticated system whereby a doctor can push a button and ask questions via phone or video to one of its laboratory technicians.

     “We want doctors to have the best relationships with our laboratory for great patient care,” emphasizes McHugh.

     The company is also committed to achieving constant compliance to ensure effective patient management and secure data for the clients in the 39 states they serve. COLA-accredited, PCLS uses testing methodologies that must pass exacting standards for each drug tested in association with the College of American Pathologists (CAP). Its quality system also meets and exceeds the requirements of the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) and the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA).

     Committed to staying ahead of the curve on testing, PCLS sometimes faces science outpacing bureaucracy when it comes to how to pay for certain services and how to handle data sharing.

     “Science is moving on a high speed rail and bureaucracy is on a horse and buggy,” says Wiegel. “We hope that we’re reaching a tipping point where there’s enough knowledge in the marketplace on the side of the doctor and the side of the patient that demands will start requiring bureaucracy to be faster.”

     For services such as genetic testing where one test could be used across multiple applications, there is no way to know if that test has been performed on a particular patient.

     Adds Wiegel, “The more we get involved in genetic testing, the more urgent the need becomes to archive and keep track of this data. The question is, who is going to deliver those services to the industry…and there is no good answer to that because of patient privacy issues. Right now our approach is to work on services that help the doctor that don’t put us as risk of violating patient privacy.”

 

Broader Spectrum of Services

     As part of its path for continued growth and success, PCLS will continue to add more services for doctors as well as increase testing. This includes launching a Women’s Health initiative and Cytology Branch later this fall to help curb prescription drug abuse in pregnant women.

     “Prescription drug abuse is a real thing and there are a lot of neonatal cases where they are basically born addicted to the narcotic. The cost of delivering care to these infants can be 20 times the cost than treating a baby not impacted at birth,” says Wiegel.

     “We think there is a real need and real business opportunity in working with ob-gyns to provide screening and patient advocacy,” explains Wiegel, adding that they would like to work with ob-gyns to implement both routine medication testing and testing for drug and alcohol abuse. If a patient tests positive, they will have access to the PCLS Advocacy Program.

     “The idea is to keep the patient clean during pregnancy to produce a better health outcome for the child when born and reduce the total costs on the system,” adds Wiegel.

     “We are constantly pushing efficiency improvements on our core values by adding more tests and tons of automation,” comments Roth. “Much of our company metrics are based on how much testing we can do with the resources we already have.”

     “You’re never done when you’re done,” says Wiegel. “With a lot of things we are doing, our energy is going into expanding those and bringing them to a wider set of doctor customers.”

 

Photo: Fenix Fotography

Jenni Walker is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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