‘And when she got there the cupboard was bare!’* A line from a children’s nursery rhyme that may sound very familiar when it comes to looking for samples in your lab. Your spreadsheet or hand drawn diagram tells you that the sample you want is in Freezer A. When you open the freezer, the space where the sample’s supposed to be is empty. But there’s something that looks quite similar next to it. Could it be? If only its handwritten label wasn’t faded. Using spreadsheets or paper-based systems to manage your freezer and sample storage is a quick and easy option. But it can end up costing you much more than your precious lab time. Here’s 5 reasons why you may want to rethink your sample storage management systems and processes.
1. Wasting hours hunting for samples
Your lab time is precious, so you want to use it as productively as possible. You don’t want to be spending the bulk of your time traipsing from freezer to freezer, sending copious emails and calling round trying to find samples.
Spreadsheets and hand drawn diagrams that track samples quickly become out of date. This is because they’re updated sporadically, more often that not it’s sometime after the work has been done and is heavily reliant on someone’s handwritten notes. As there is no sample movement audit trail you have no idea who updated them or when.
What’s more, with few rules around consistency and naming conventions the freezer name, position numbers, shelf descriptions and sample identifiers may vary. Not just across different storage units but within the same storage. Add to this the fact that data relating to samples in one storage location probably spans several spreadsheets and it might be quicker to find a needle in a haystack!
We’re increasingly aware of the amount of waste we’re creating. This is also true in the lab. You may already be thinking about how you can reduce the amount of plastic you use or what you can safely reuse, reduce, or recycle.
But what about the millions of generously donated samples sitting at the back of freezers slowly gathering frost? For many labs it’s easier to procure new samples than trawl through spreadsheets to find existing samples.
It costs money, time, and effort to obtain those new samples. There’s also the cost of keeping your existing samples in your storage and freezer space. If you’re running out of storage capacity and are thinking of procuring new storage systems is it because you’re handling and processing larger sample volumes or because you’ve got samples sat there unidentifiable and unused?
3. Failing to comply with donor/patient wishes
When working with human samples it’s imperative that you use those samples in accordance with the donor’s wishes. This is two-fold. Firstly, the donor has provided their samples in the hope that you will use them to further research or understanding. Secondly, the donor has specified, through informed consent, how they want their samples to be used.
Samples sat unused in storage is not complying with their wishes. Likewise, you may find it time-consuming to get the consent details to confirm how samples can be used so you don’t bother using them. Or worse you unknowingly use them in a manner which conflicts with the consent given.
4. Mounting regulatory and compliance concerns
Your lab processes are heavily regulated, and quality is paramount. When using spreadsheets to manage sample storage you rarely, if ever, record every instance of a sample’s movement in and out of storage. Likewise, when it comes to capturing every transfer between labs and scientists or detailing every sample event. Often it’s just the current or last activity that’s saved. Being able to track a sample’s chain of custody is a crucial requirement of complying with regulatory audits.
It’s possible to pass an audit inspection if you’re using spreadsheets and paper-based systems. But they’re often cited as areas for improvement. What’s more, spreadsheets could be costing you more than you think if you’re spending weeks before an audit pulling together data or making sure everyone is present on the day of the audit inspection.
5. Diminishing confidence in results
The results and information you gain from your samples has an impact on human health and well-being. So, you have to be sure that the samples you’re using in your work are of the highest quality.
Knowing if a sample has been properly stored is essential to assessing its viability for use. Critically, it’s not only about knowing where you’re storing it at this precise moment in time. Being able to see exactly how long you have stored a sample, at what temperature, whether someone checked it out and used it, what they used it for and so on are all important questions.
When using spreadsheets and paper-based systems for sample storage you have little or no audit trail. As a result, this can impact confidence in results as well as your ability to accurately repeat any tests and results. What’s more if you can’t find the sample you used in the first place then …
Using purpose built software to manage sample storage
There are software systems that can help you address, and in some cases, eliminate the 5 costly challenges outlined in this blog. Pre-built Sample Management software solutions and Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) provide a wide range of features to track and audit every step of the sample lifecycle. This includes managing sample storage.
As these systems are purpose built, they already have your critical sample and lab processes ready for you to use along with any predefined rules to improve consistency and traceability.
Importantly, there are different deployment options and systems to suit most budgets. Although spreadsheets and handwritten notes may seem like a cheaper option, they’re almost certainly costing you more than you think.
Don’t forget to download our Sample Management Improvement Questionnaire to see how much your spreadsheets, paper-based or legacy systems could be costing you.
* Old Mother Hubbard UK children’s nursery rhyme
- Using Laboratory Information Management Software for sample inventory management
- Spreadsheet errors have become such a concern that a European Spreadsheet Risks Interest Group (EuSpRIG) has been formed to offer independent information on Spreadsheet Risk Management – (http://www.eusprig.org ).