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Get it fast, get it right: error correction helps labs satisfy customers.


Error-free data transmission has eased the strain of thousands of telephone calls a day for SmithKline Beecham Clinical Laboratories in reporting results of medical tests to doctors and hospitals.

SmithKline has 27 labs around the country that receive blood, urine, or other specimens, perform any of 1000 tests on them, and report the results, in most cases the next day.

About half of those results are delivered via modem to dedicated printers in hospitals or doctors' offices. Others, whose volume of tests don't justify

their being supplied with a printer, receive results by courier.

SmithKline's modem of choice for the past three years is the Microcom AX/2400c, a 2.4-kb/s modem with data compression that boosts its speed to 4.8 to 5 kb/s.

Save Those Customers

The MNB (Microcom Networking Protocol) error-correction feature of the new modems has been a big help to SmithKline, reducing the need for costly retransmissions.

SmithKline's competitive weapons are speed and accuracy. Prior to using error-correcting modems, customers would complain that data was not coming through properly. Some of those customers ended up using other labs.

"One of the major advantages of the MNP with error correction was fewer problems in using our dial-up lines," says Dave Peairs, director of laboratory systems. "Our successful transmissions increased dramatically."

VAX clusters at four regional laboratories (Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Los Angeles) maintain the database for the medical tests. Modems are on an Ethernet wide-area network, hanging off DECserver 200s in an autodial application.

When a medical specimen comes in, accompanying it is a bar-coded form. As each specimen moves dowm an assembly line, laboratory staffers grab it, enter the patient and testing information, and create a new bar-coce label. That bar code is the specimen's identifier for the tests to follow.

When tests are completed, usually late at night or early in the morning, results information is entered into the database. Couriers pick up test specimens during clients' office hours, but the labs' busiest times are on second and third shifts. Busiest times for outbound calling are 7 to 9 a.m., so results are available first thing in the morning. Up to 80% of tests are turned around in a few hours, with results available the next morning.

Late In Day

"You want to pick up specimens later in the day so you can get them all, but you want reports there early in the day. If you can telecommunicate reports, you save a lot of time and increase service," says Peairs.

Results are sent out automatically in batches, triggered either by time-of-day preferences of the client, or when the number of reports to be sent to an individual client reaches a certain point.

Most calls are local rather than long-distance, and can go out from any lab, accessing the modems at the regional sites via the Ethernet.

SmithKline has a number of leased analog lines throughout the county, but is migrating toward digital US Sprint lines, says Peairs.

Calls last three to five minutes, as data is loaded into an expanded buffer on the receiving printer.

The larber buffer, up to 512 K in some cases, is meant to keep connection time as short as possible.

A lab makes about 1000 calls a day. Increasingly, customers are dialing in to check results themselves, via computer terminal and the modems. They still maintain printers, tough, which are slaved through the terminal's auxiliary port.

As SmithKline grew through acquisition, it took on many smaller customers who still get courier delivery. To get their reports to them, SmithKline uses Codes 6740 multiplexers to transmit data to high-speed printers at various distribution sites. The print function is treated as any printer off the Ethernet. Couriers then take those printed reports out to customers.

Fast Enough

While the 4.8-kb/s speed is not fas as modems go, it is more than adequate for the labs' needs now, says Peairs. With printers and other modems holding transmission back at the receiving end, much of the data is going out at 1.2 kb/s, he says.

"There is a capability of much higher throughput. That is one of the things I am working with.

"We have gained some advantages from compression, but not as much as I would like," he says.

As equipment is being replaced, SmithKline is trying to standardize with Alps or Okidata printes and with the modems made by Microcom.

The modem has caused some problems as the point of call setup. SmithKline doesn't always get the correct status back, forcing it into a second request to finish the connection.

"That does slow us down a lot," says Peairs, adding that Microcom now is aware of the problem and is working on fixing it.

SmithKline Beecham Clinical Labs is one of four business sectors of SmithKline Beecham, best known for pharmaceuticals, over-the-counter medicines, and health-care products. The labs do some 56 million tests a year, generating about $675 million annually, or 10% of corporate sales.
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Title Annotation:modems
Author:Tanzillo, Kevin
Publication:Communications News
Date:Feb 1, 1990
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