What’s in a name? The difference between a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) and a Sample Management System
Jan 21

What’s in a name? The difference between a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) and a Sample Management System

Welcome to part five of our ‘Choosing a LIMS’ series. As the famous quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet goes, ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. Could you say the same for Laboratory Information Management Systems and Sample Management Software? Or Biobanking and Biobank software? Or even Sample Tracking and Tissue Tracking Software? Are they just the same things but with different names? Well, possibly. Or, is there a significant difference in functionality? To answer this, we’re going to look a little more closely at Sample Management Software and LIMS systems as an example.

What is laboratory information management software (LIMS)?

The main function of a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) is to manage your samples. A LIMS helps you manage your laboratory operations and accompanying data such as samples, storage, analysis, results, study and participant information.

Typical functionality a LIMS offers includes sample, analysis, study and donor:

  • workflows and process management
  • data capture and validation
  • data analysis
  • systems and instrument integration
  • quality control and auditing.

A LIMS often handles large data volumes; thousands, possibly millions, of records. And helps you manage some of your most complex workflow and data requirements.

What is sample management software?

Sample Management Software tracks and manages your biological samples. Sounds the same so far? Most sample management software allows you to:

  • register samples
  • store samples
  • manage basic sample processes
  • generate and scan sample barcodes and labels
  • run reports and queries.

Many are ‘sample-centric’ which means they focus on the sample with little or no information about the donor. And some of these systems are essentially ‘one-step-up’ from an Excel spreadsheet or Access database. They are typically designed for very small numbers of users and data.

Sample management software just allows you to capture sample data then?

And that’s the difference, right? Not strictly true. And this is where it becomes a little complicated. There are some very advanced Sample Management Systems out there. These offer you much more than basic sample tracking. For example, they can include elements of study, donor and consent management. Plus, they cover more of your complex workflows and integrate with your lab equipment and existing systems.

These more advanced Sample Management Systems may have shied away from calling themselves a LIMS. This could be to avoid being tarnished with the negative comments that have been made in the past about very complex LIMS.

We can’t configure a sample management system. Can we …?

Another of the main differences cited between LIMS and Sample Management Systems is your ability to configure them. And the extent of the changes that you can make.

Usually LIMS and Sample Management Systems will provide you with some configuration tools to allow you to make changes. But, the level of changes you can complete yourself will vary – irrespective of the type of system. Smaller, simpler systems don’t necessarily mean they have simpler or restricted toolkits.

However, to make an informed decision, you firstly need to know what’s in the standard software and how it fits with your requirements. Following this, if you still want to make changes, you need to know how you can do this and what are the prerequisites or restrictions. Once armed with this knowledge you can decide whether the software is right for your immediate needs. Plus, you’ll also be better able to assess its longevity if you’re looking for a system to support you for the next 5 years.

A LIMS takes at least 2 years to implement. Doesn’t it …?

This is another one of those ‘urban myths’ cited as a key differentiator between a LIMS and Sample Management Software. And some will only perceive a system to be comprehensive and functional if it’s complicated, expensive and takes ages to implement. This really doesn’t have to be the case – and some of this is also up to you!

It’s very easy to get carried away when you’re looking for systems, and implementing them. You can be ‘dazzled and amazed’ by all the wonderful things the system can do for you. This applies to both LIMS and Sample Management Systems. The key is to have your acceptance criteria defined beforehand, so you focus on what’s important to you.

Having said all this, you also need to keep an open-mind. Some of this ‘other stuff’ can be invaluable – offering benefits you may not have even thought about before. Plus, it can give you a roadmap for your possible future needs.

Finally, there are systems out there that take a long time to implement with or without changes or including a load of ‘shiny features’. These delays can be due to several factors including the software and supplier, as well as your readiness with your data for migration or infrastructure, for example.

So now we’ve cleared that up …?

Well, probably not. However, the thing to take away is don’t assume it’s one type of system that you need to meet your requirements. When looking for software to help your lab or Biobank, identify what you need (check out our blogs ‘Avoid going out on a limb* by clearly identifying your acceptance criteria when choosing a LIMS (* pun intended!)‘ and ‘Helping you identify Return on Investment (ROI) measures and acceptance criteria’ to help you do this). Then rather than diving straight into searching for ‘LIMS’ , ‘Biobanking Software’ or ‘the best LIMS’, search instead for systems that help meet your specific needs. For example, if you want a system to help you comply with the Human Tissue Act (HTA) then search for that and see what comes up!

By restricting your search to ‘LIMS’ , ‘Biobank Software’ or ‘Sample Management System’ you may be missing out on finding the system that best meets your requirements. Whatever you might call it.

To read more go to ‘Things to consider when choosing a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS)‘.

Catch up with the rest of the series so far

About The Author

Sharon Williams has over 20 years’ experience of helping businesses successfully implement Sample Management Software and CRM systems. Appreciating that the software will deliver significant business change and improvements, Sharon guides businesses to help optimise these benefits. This includes advice on how to obtain user buy-in, evaluating and redefining existing business processes and how to gain a better understanding of their data to provide invaluable insight and inform business decisions.