How Specimen Tracking Software Improves Efficiency and Reduces the Chance for Diagnostic Errors
February 18, 2022
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that roughly 14 billion lab tests are ordered each year. And with 70% of today’s medical decisions dependent on laboratory test results, sample and specimen testing has become a critical piece of the diagnostic puzzle. But with great power comes even greater responsibility, so Molecular, Clinical, and Anatomic Pathology laboratories must implement 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 specimen management is essential for labs of all sizes, and it all starts with flawless specimen tracking practices.
Lab Specimen Tracking Software
Specimen tracking refers to the system by which a patient's sample is labeled and moved through the testing process. The LigoLab LIS & RCM Laboratory Operating Platform provides error-free specimen tracking with full traceability and a clear view across each step in the workflow, all of which helps laboratories know where samples are in the testing process.
“With our platform, lab managers know who touched the specimen and where it was moved,” said LigoLab CEO Suren Avunjian, who also noted that the platform even tracks bottlenecks in the 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 workflow.”
The LigoLab platform works by assigning a specimen-unique identifier the moment an order is placed, ensuring the security of the specimen across a lab’s processes and workflows. The platform tracks the specimen as it moves 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 laboratory specimen software allows the lab to rapidly identify patient information and any previous testing data associated with the sample. This tracking software is also supported by LigoLab’s rule and automation engines.
With LigoLab, the need for human intervention and the associated cost is reduced significantly, ensuring efficient specimen tracking and streamlined laboratory operations.
Manual Specimen Collection and Tracking
Specimen tracking systems, like LigoLab’s specimen tracking and handling module, reduce errors by ensuring every specimen is barcoded and has multiple identifiers. This module also automatically creates a log of where a specimen has been and which technician has touched it.
Even though this level of tracking is available, many laboratories still create sample tracking logs manually. Laboratories that rely upon manually, handwritten logs not only tie up their technician’s 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 specimen management is a top priority. It’s a responsibility that should no longer be left in the hands of manual processes.
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 related to 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 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 Specimen Collection and Tracking
One of the major problems associated with improper specimen information collection is the sheer volume of testing carried out by laboratories, especially those struggling to keep up with the demands of COVID-19 testing. The workload lab technicians face is increasing and so is the pressure to reduce the time spent on specimens. Making matters worse is 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 a crisis.
When it comes to filling out, verifying, and logging a patient’s details, there are multiple points of 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 matched 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 or 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 specimen security and tracking. Unfortunately, many legacy labs 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 specimen collection and tracking support.
Specimen Management Software
Uniquely identifying specimens and samples early in the process and using barcoding and specimen tracking software to identify and track the specimen can create efficiencies and reduce errors. That’s why today’s leading laboratories use some form of coding during the specimen tracking process. Most use a numeric code to identify patients and track specimens. However, the specimen 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 specimen management software present in systems like the award-winning LigoLab LIS & RCM Operating Platform.
“When you combine barcoding with LigoLab’s specimen tracking capabilities, labs can confirm the identity of every specimen across their entire workflow,” said Avunjian. “If a mixup occurs, the system will automatically notify the lab of the error. This error is then recorded into the system and the lab can investigate how the error was made, and hopefully prevent future errors.”
This type of specimen tracking system 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 LIS & RCM Laboratory Operating Platform is that it scales as a lab’s volume and sophistication grows,” added Avunjian. “Our solution is agile and enables labs to track extremely detailed steps within the testing process. This level of detail improves the accuracy of specimen management and reduces errors.”
Most labs scan barcodes using a hand scanner. But 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 on a level of racks,” said Avunjian. “Our platform has awareness of all the specimens that are within the rack, so as the rack moves throughout the laboratory, the software automatically logs these logistics.”
Although RFID technology is readily available, it hasn’t been widely adopted within the lab just yet. Look for that to change as more vendors follow LigoLab’s lead and develop software that supports this form of tracking, too.
The Molecular, Clinical, and Anatomic Pathology laboratory suite is at the center of the LigoLab LIS & RCM Laboratory Operating Platform. It acts as a data warehouse for all cases and includes quick order entry, label and barcode generation, a robust specimen 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, and for easy integration with an existing hospital management system.
LigoLab is an award-winning provider of innovative end-to-end healthcare software for pathology laboratories, servicing 150+ facilities nationwide. As a comprehensive enterprise-grade solution, the LigoLab LIS & RCM Laboratory Operating Platform™ includes modules for anatomic pathology, clinical pathology, molecular diagnostics, revenue cycle management, and direct-to-consumer, 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, become more compliant, and more profitable.