Maryland Medical Lab gains some elbow room Firm expands as testing proliferates

March 23, 1993|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Staff Writer

It's a low-profile business whose name is barely recognizable to most people in the area, but the work it does can be as critical as determining whether a person has cancer, has failed a drug test or is the biological father of a child.

With 1,600 employees and 40 satellite offices, Maryland Medical Laboratory Inc. is an example of a mature life sciences business -- just the type of economic development local business people are trying to promote.

Started in the late 1960s with a handful of employees, the private Baltimore company is the seventh-largest private laboratory in the nation and the largest in the state. Earlier this month it broke ground for a a $5 million, 94,000-square-foot addition that will more than double its space in its Arbutus headquarters.

Today, said Selvin Passen, a physician who helped found thecompany and is now chief executive, the 75,000 square feet of laboratories are so cramped that when the shell of the new building is ready he will quickly move some departments into it. The rest of the space will be more gradually filled as the companygrows.

The company plans to add 100 employees within the next year, and hopes to hire 200 to 400 employees over five years, he said. Each day Maryland Medical processes 35,000 blood or tissue tests for illnesses as severe as cancer and as benign as a sore throat. Samples within a radius of 75 miles are collected by a fleet of 100 cars from dozens of doctors' offices, nursing homes, hospitals and veterinary clinics; those farther away are flown in.

Advances in medical technology are responsible for a large chunk of Maryland Medical Laboratory's growth. Today, about 20 percent to 30 percent of its business stems from tests that didn't exist 20 years ago. These include tests for genetic disorders; diagnostic and screening tests for certain types of cancer, and tests for AIDS and the virus that causes it. Dr. Passen believes future growth will come primarily in the area of genetic testing and screening that will be consistent with moves toward more preventive health care.

"If we can start screening people from age 40 on for cancer, diabetes and heart disease," he said, then the health care system will save money by providing earlier treatment.

The remainder of the company's business -- $82 million in revenues last year -- is built around analyzing a wide variety of tests from samples of human blood, urine and tissue. Often they may be tests that aren't done in hospital or doctors' laboratories. The company also has branched into areas beyond human health. It handles tests on dogs, cats or other animals from veterinary clinics at its headquarters perched on the edge of the Beltway near Washington Boulevard.

But Dr. Passen says the growth in medical testing is only one reason for the laboratory's success as a business. "It has been a combination of good people, high quality and loyal physicians," he said. "My real talent has been in being able to pick good people."

A customer also can receive results through a computer and modem, by fax machine or through the mail.

"What most physicians look at is how fast is the turnaround time and how much is it going to cost me and my patients," said Elizabeth Sorenson, education coordinator for the Johns Hopkins blood bank.

And that will be the challenge in the company's future: to cut the costs of the test analysis by turning to more automation and computers, Dr. Passen said.

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