How Specimen Tracking Software Improves Efficiency and Reduces the Chance for Diagnostic Errors
December 26, 2023
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that roughly 14 billion lab tests are ordered each year, and with 70 percent of today’s medical decisions dependent upon those laboratory test results, sample tracking and an efficient lab sample management system have become critical pieces of a diagnostic puzzle. As the saying goes, “With great power comes even greater responsibility,” so Molecular, Clinical, and Anatomic Pathology laboratories must implement diagnostic lab software systems and processes that help ensure accuracy, efficiency, and scalability.
Alarmingly, the CDC also estimates that somewhere between 40,000 and 80,000 deaths occur annually from preventable diagnostic errors. A recent Johns Hopkins study goes even further, suggesting that the way the CDC collects its data is inaccurate and that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the U.S., with more than 250,000 of these deaths occurring annually.
One of the most common and preventable causes leading to misdiagnosis comes from a rather simple step in the process; the labeling and tracking of tissue samples and specimens. That’s why error-free sample tracking management is essential for labs of all sizes, and it all starts with flawless sample tracking practices.
What is Sample Tracking Software?
Sample tracking refers to the lab sample management system by which a patient's sample is labeled and moved through the diagnostic testing process. As an example, the LigoLab LIS & RCM Laboratory Informatics Platform, a modern laboratory information system (LIS, also often referred to as a LIS system) provides error-free sample tracking with full traceability and a clear view of each step in the lab workflow which helps with clinical laboratory management.
“With our informatics platform, lab managers know who touched the specimen and where it was moved,” said LigoLab CEO Suren Avunjian, who noted that the platform has a lab track system that even tracks bottlenecks in clinical laboratory workflow. “We built LigoLab to model the real world as closely as possible, so it has full awareness of parent-child relationships from specimens as derivatives and aliquot specimens that are produced throughout the lab workflow.”
The LigoLab platform works by assigning a specimen-unique identifier the moment an order is placed, ensuring the security of all specimens across multiple lab processes and workflow. The platform tracks the samples as they move through different departments, racks, instruments, and processes, creating a full chain of custody and a comprehensive and searchable audit trail. All specimens are fully traceable, including batch orders, and sendout orders between facilities. Also, if additional tests are ordered, LigoLab’s sample tracking software allows the lab to rapidly identify patient information and any previous testing data associated with the sample. This sample tracking software is also supported by LigoLab’s rule engine and automation engine.
With LigoLab’s LIS software, clinical laboratory management is enhanced and the need for human intervention and the associated cost is reduced significantly, ensuring efficient specimen tracking and streamlined laboratory operations.
Make Manual Collection and Sample Tracking a Thing of the Past
Sample tracking systems, like LigoLab’s sample tracking and handling module, reduce errors by ensuring every sample is barcoded and has multiple identifiers. This module also automatically creates a log of where a specimen has been and which technician has handled it.
Even though this level of sample tracking is readily available, many laboratories still create sample tracking logs manually. This is unfortunate because laboratories that rely upon manual, handwritten logs not only tie up their technicians’ time, they also face an increased risk of avoidable errors.
No matter how accurate a diagnosis is, it’s useless if it’s not matched to the correct patient. Resulting errors can lead to increased medical costs, delays in treatment, and sometimes the wrong treatment. An error like this has the potential to affect two patients at once, including the person who was misdiagnosed, and the person who missed his or her treatment time thanks to the mistake. That’s why preserving the integrity of patient information with reliable sample tracking management is a top priority. It’s a responsibility that should no longer be left in the hands of manual processes prone to major, preventable errors.
It’s true, not all errors are caused by specimen mislabeling. There can be many reasons for a lab error, from mishandling samples to slide contamination. However, incorrect labeling is a significant contributor to patient misdiagnosis. Patient identification errors for pathology specimens have been estimated to occur about 0.4% of the time and 0.1% are affected by mislabeling. Although an error rate of 0.1% is extremely small by most standards, when put up against the 14 billion specimen tests each year, the numbers become somewhat more concerning.
“We help labs make sure that every specimen is tracked, and every step and every specimen scan is an extra validation point, ensuring that nothing can fall through the cracks,” said Avunjian. “Because the platform is built on real-time queues, technicians can quickly identify any specimen that has remained in a queue where it should not be. Additionally, each specimen turnaround time is tracked and the lab sample management system automatically changes the color of the case to bring attention to the tech of a potential error.”
“It’s easy to try and blame mistakes on overburdened lab technicians or management,” continued Avunjian. “Most laboratories operate with the greatest of care, going to extreme lengths to check details over and over. But there can be eight or more separate steps in the testing process, and when you do each step manually, especially in high-throughput labs, human errors are unfortunately inevitable.”
Other Challenges Associated with Manual Collection and Sample Tracking
One of the major problems associated with improper sample collection and sample tracking is the sheer volume of testing carried out by laboratories. The workload that lab technicians face is increasing and so is the pressure to reduce the time spent on specimens. Making matters worse is the fact that many labs across the country also continue to struggle with a workforce shortage. Put bluntly, there was a lack of qualified personnel before the pandemic, and COVID-19 took a growing problem and turned it into today’s crisis.
When it comes to filling out, verifying, and logging a patient’s details, there are multiple points of potential error in a lab’s sample tracking process. For example:
- The interpretation of faded labels or illegible handwriting can result in mistakes.
- The handling of slides in batches increases the risk of slides being mismatched to the wrong block.
- The re-labeling of slides increases the possibility of error.
- Keying data into a computer can also present risks.
- Pre-printed labels do not contain extra identifiers and can also leave loose labels on specimens.
“The LigoLab approach is to generate specimen labels in real-time, meaning as they are needed and at the right moment,” stated Avunjian. “This drastically improves security and sample tracking. Unfortunately, many labs using legacy laboratory information systems still pre-print labels and it's a disaster in the making.”
No matter how careful a laboratory technician is, the risk of human error is always there. When it comes to capturing critical patient information multiple times a day, it is almost assured that mistakes will be made without sample collection and sample tracking support.
The Advantages of Using Lab Sample Management System Software
Uniquely identifying samples early in the process and using barcoding and sample tracking software to identify and track the sample creates efficiencies and reduces errors. That’s why today’s leading laboratories use some form of coding during the sample tracking process. Most use a numeric code to identify patients and track samples. However, the sample must often be re-labeled during the process, which opens the lab to errors. This can be avoided by using barcoding and scanning together with lab sample management system software present in modern informatics platforms.
“When you combine barcoding with LigoLab’s sample collection and sample tracking capabilities, labs can confirm the identity of every sample across their entire lab workflow,” said Avunjian. “If a mixup occurs, the lab track system will automatically notify the lab of the error. This error is then recorded into the LIS system and the lab can investigate how the error was made, and hopefully prevent future errors.”
This type of sample tracking ensures that samples are handled in a way that prevents confusion. Every time a sample is scanned, the laboratory can track who handled it, providing full traceability.
“The great thing about the LigoLab’s pathology specimen tracking system module and pathology information system is that it scales as a lab’s volume and sophistication grows,” added Avunjian. “Our pathology software solution is agile and enables labs to track extremely detailed steps within the testing process. This level of detail improves the accuracy of pathology specimen management and reduces errors.”
Most labs scan barcodes using a hand scanner. However, LIS software solutions with built-in scanning capabilities are becoming more popular. Take, for example, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) enabled labels, which the LigoLab platform can recognize without the need for scanning.
“Typically this technology would be used at the rack level,” said Avunjian. “Our platform has awareness of all the specimens that are within the rack, so as the rack moves throughout the laboratory, the pathology lab software automatically logs these logistics.”
Although RFID technology is readily available, it hasn’t been widely adopted within the pathology lab just yet. Look for that to change as more laboratory information system vendors follow LigoLab’s lead and develop LIS software that supports this form of sample tracking, too.
The Molecular, Clinical, and Anatomic Pathology laboratory suite is at the center of the LigoLab LIS & RCM Laboratory Informatics Platform. It acts as a data warehouse for all cases and includes quick order entry, plus label and barcode generation, a robust sample tracking system, document scanning, a grossing touch-screen, electronic histology, swift result entry and sign-out, image acquisition, direct digital interface with microscopes and whole slide scanners, reporting, quality control, integration with prior cytology results, auto reflex testing, and more. It’s designed for use at general or specialized pathology practices large and small, with easy integrations with existing hospital management systems.
About LigoLab’s Pathology Lab Software
LigoLab is an award-winning provider of innovative end-to-end pathology lab software, servicing nearly 300 facilities nationwide. As a comprehensive enterprise-grade solution, the LigoLab LIS & RCM Laboratory Informatics Platform™ includes modules for anatomic pathology, clinical pathology, molecular diagnostics, lab revenue cycle management, and direct-to-consumer lab testing, all on one powerful and integrated platform that supports every role, every department, and every case. LigoLab empowers laboratories to better serve patients, differentiate themselves in the marketplace, scale their operations, and become more compliant and more profitable.