Veterinary contract laboratory services can cover a wide range of disciplines, including: biochemistry, haematology, microbiology, endocrinology, immunology, molecular biology, histology, cytology, serology, semen analysis, post-mortem and allergy testing. Not only must laboratories provide a high quality comprehensive service with a fast turnaround, but pricing must also be competitive.
Efficient management of the laboratory process helps to keep costs down and improve service levels. This can be particularly important for organisations which have more than one laboratory, where the management of samples and collating of results is more difficult. Laboratory information management systems (LIMS) can improve management of the entire process.
The benefits of using LIMS
Laboratory testing involves the registration of samples; receiving samples into the laboratory; allocation of resources; scheduling and performing tests; entering raw results; calculation of final values and comparing to expected values; and issuing of reports. Key to the efficiency of the laboratory is how the data associated with these processes are recorded and managed.
Laboratories can use a variety of approaches, ranging from recording everything on paper, through basic electronic means using standard programs such as Excel to sophisticated commercial systems. Paper-based systems can be time-consuming to manage, and every time data are copied from one piece of paper to another there is the potential for transcription errors. Basic electronic systems can help with this, but can be unwieldy in accessing information at different stages of the sample’s journey through the laboratory. Answering the question “How many tests have been completed so far on Sample X and what are the results?” may not be straightforward.
Commercially available LIMS, however, are specifically designed to provide functionality for controlling, managing, organising and documenting information within a dedicated database. This not only streamlines the process, reducing the likelihood of process error, but can also provide a complete audit trail so that it is possible to see when and by whom any action has been taken on a sample.
Optimising the system
Although the basic laboratory testing process will be similar for all veterinary laboratories, no two laboratories will have identical workflows, even if they are carrying out the same tests. Outside the testing process, there are a multitude of ways in which the workflow of laboratories differs: the way samples are submitted for testing, the sample lifecycle, through to the point at which results are authorised and reported and the work charged or invoiced. The LIMS must therefore be flexible enough to support these different needs and practices. Ideally, the LIMS needs to be “configured” to meet individual requirements, to avoid having to adapt the working practices to fit the structure of the LIMS.
LIMS can have useful, easy-to-use configuration tools, providing the flexibility to meet the requirements of different laboratories. These tools allow the setup and modification of workflows, screen designs, menu designs, terminology, numbering schemes, report designs and much more without the need for programming or esoteric scripting languages. Features such as rapid barcode scanning, automated invoicing and the full integration of Microchip, Vet XML and VeNOM codes simplify and speed up laboratory processes.
For one contract laboratory, the audit trail capability of the Matrix Gemini LIMS from Autoscribe Informatics, which provides complete traceability of all actions by stamping them with time, date and user ID, was key to improving efficiency. It allowed the identification of bottlenecks within their laboratory. The workflow was then adapted to minimise these. They also interfaced some of their analysers directly to the LIMS, improving efficiency by saving technician time as well as removing data transcription errors.
Another contract service, operating laboratories in four different locations, utilised the LIMS to monitor the allocation of resources across different sites without the need for re-registration. The system manages sample testing at individual sites, sample testing at multiple sites and samples that are tested both internally and at third party laboratories if a test is required that is not available within the in-house portfolio. This includes the management of inter-site sample transfers.
There are many benefits to moving from a simple paper or Excel-based system to a more complex management solution. It is possible for any screen that has been configured for use on the desktop to be available to a user running a web browser. The web-based implementation also provides remote access for out-of-office specialists who may need to review a set of test results. A custom search screen allows the current status of any sample to be determined. When customers phone asking about the progress of a sample or samples, it is quick and easy to give them up-to-date information.