5 Challenges of Using Spreadsheets to Track Sample Movement
Jun 07

5 Challenges of Using Spreadsheets to Track Sample Movement

Each sample’s journey is a complex one. As a sample moves from initial collection to depletion it passes through the hands of numerous people. Even the simplest journey involves two people where a clinic nurse takes a sample and then a scientist processes it. But it’s usually not quite that simple. What’s more, tracking sample movement isn’t just about recording what’s coming into your lab but what you’re sending out to others to use, store or process. Successful research studies, testing activities and clinical trials require close collaboration between several internal and external teams. So, it’s highly likely that you’ll be moving your samples between different locations and people many times before you finally deplete them. Keeping track of sample movements can be challenging, especially if you’re using a spreadsheet.

Why tracking sample movement matters

Having full traceability of your samples is essential for any lab. Firstly, it helps you understand each sample’s provenance in order to assess its suitability for your work. Secondly, you know what’s happened to it including who has accessed and worked with it. This helps you assess its viability.

Finally, and most importantly, you need to make sure that you – and your collaborators – are legally and ethically allowed to use a sample for your intended purpose. Failure to do so could mean you’re not meeting your regulatory compliance and legal obligations which could potentially have serious implications.

Why it’s a challenge tracking sample movement using spreadsheets

Spreadsheets aren’t designed to be used as quality management or audit systems. This means they’re missing some essential components to help you manage and track sample movement.

1. Missing or basic audit trail

Often in spreadsheets you only record the last action against each sample. Sometimes, there’s a large, unformatted note against each sample. Either way it’s time-consuming – if not impossible – to confirm where a sample is, where it’s been and assess what’s happened to it to determine whether you or a collaborator can use it.

2. Difficult for multiple users to access and update information at the same time

If you’re transferring samples between labs in your organisation, each lab may have its own spreadsheet and copy of the data. This leads to duplication and also potential data transcript errors through manual rekeying of information.

3. Lack of processes

There are few, if any, rules invoked in spreadsheets. As a result, it’s difficult to make sure the appropriate approvals are enforced. Similarly, when it comes to confirming any paperwork and material transfer agreements are in place. This could impact your ability to comply with your Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).

4. Unstructured and unformatted data

Unlike a database a spreadsheet is an unstructured list. You can filter and sort it, but this relies on everyone using the same terminology. As a result, it can be time-consuming to track down all the samples that you received or sent as part of a shipment.

Likewise, looking for samples from the same donor to send to a collaborator may take time.

 5. Potential compliance risks

When dealing with human tissues you must ensure you manage any samples you use or send to collaborators in line with donor and study consent. Similarly, if a donor withdraws consent you have to locate all their samples in order to manage them appropriately. This can be challenging using a spreadsheet.

Improving sample movement tracking

The challenges of using spreadsheets to track sample movement are not insurmountable.

Laboratory information management systems (LIMS) are purpose-built solutions designed for sample management. Most LIMS have an in-built audit trail that automatically registers sample events such as registration and checking samples in and out of storage.

Advanced LIMS, such as Achiever Medical LIMS, also include features to manage dispatches and sample receipts so you have full traceability of where your samples are at any time including those shipped externally.

Plus, Achiever Medical LIMS includes donor profiling and consent management functionality. So, you can easily see all samples a single donor has given, check the relevant consent is in place and locate any samples for that donor if they withdraw consent at any point.

What’s more, Achiever Medical LIMS also offers sample request features. These are available for both internal and external collaborators to search your samples identified as available for loan and request them for use. The in-built approvals process makes sure any samples have the appropriate authorisation before you release them. Finally, Achiever Medical LIMS integrates with the UKCRC online tissue directory to help you publicise your available samples.

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.