Considerations in selecting a laboratory information management

Considerations in selecting a laboratory information management
Considerations in selecting a laboratory
information management system (LIMS)
Christine Paszko and Carol Pugsley
s a laboratory grows, it
faces the dilemma of accurately and quickly processing overwhelming amounts of
data for the tests performed and
keeping ahead of its competitors
by utilizing the latest technology
to enhance laboratory performance and increase profitability.
three types of database engines:
proprietary (which are not ODBCcompliant); ISAM (Indexed Sequential Array Method), such as
Acces s (Mic rosoft Corp., R e dmond, WA), Paradox (Scotts Valley, CA), and FoxPro (Microsoft );
and SQL (Structured Query Language), including SQL Server (Mi-
It is important to select a database engine that is
not proprietary and that will have a clear
migration path as the technology evolves,
which will protect the investment.
LIMS are database applications
that are used to store and manage
information associated with the
l a b o r a t o r y, such as customers,
sample matrix, tests, results, methods, parameters, bottle types, employees, control limits, passwords,
etc. In choosing a LIMS, many
questions arise, including selecting
the appropriate database engine,
ease of use of the LIMS software,
quality of the vendor’s technical
support and training programs,
and utilization of existing hardware or software. Other factors include flexibility in making changes
to the system as the laboratory ’s
demands change, the user interface, vendor expertise, and, of
course, budget. Open Database
Connectivity (ODBC) is a database
standard that provides the ability
to link the LIMS with different
databases (such as accoun ting,
SAP, ERP [enterprise resource planning], etc.). It is important to select a database engine that is not
p r o p r i e t a ry and that will have a
clear migration path as the technology evolves, which will protect
the investment. There are basically
crosoft ), Oracle (Redwood Shores,
CA), Sybase (Emeryville, CA), and
A d d i t i o n a l l y, con sideration
needs to be given to the success
and ease of implementation of the
LIMS. It is important to select a
Table 1
Typical LIMS
Sample tracking
system that will fit the laboratory’s
data management needs with minor modifications. However, there
are certain core features that all
LIMS and LIMS buyers should be
aware of and understand (Table 1).
Many laboratories are migrating from paper logbooks to
spreadsheets on a PC to track their
samples. This is a great first step;
however, once the database grows,
it is increasingly difficult to interact with the spreadsheets and a relational database is often the ans w e r. In se lecting a LIM S, it is
necessary that the LIMS matches
the current sample flow of the laboratory, that the system is flexible
to accommodate change, and that
the vendor has an upgrade path
available as the laboratory grows.
As the laboratory ’s data management needs and reporting (fax,
e-mail, electronic data deliverables) expand, the LIMS should
Typical LIMS functionality
Allows laboratories to track their samples through different departments in the laboratory with a computer-generated unique sample identification number and provides a
complete chain of custody.
Data entry
Allows analysts to enter results into the LIMSand to assign QC run batches. Reporting
to clients via fax, e-mail, or a hard copy.
Sample scheduling
Automatically logs in samples, receives them into the laboratory, prints labels, and
assigns the tests for projects on a routine basis.
Allows users to generate control charts and view trend analysis graphs. Control charts
can encompass blanks, duplicates, spikes, surrogates, standards, etc.
Electronic data
Allows automatic transfer of data from analytical instrumentation into the LIMS. In
Increases productivity and greatly decreases the potential for transcription errors.
Chemical and reagent Functionality that tracks the purchase and usage of supplies in the laboratory and
manages lot and order numbers, shelf life, costs, etc., assisting in supply
Personnel and
Allows users to track employee training records for ISO and NELAC purposes and also
track instrument calibration, repairs, costs, monitor trends, etc.
A function that allows the database administrator to manage the database, keeping
track of client lists, employees, tests, methods, parameters, permissions, priorities, etc.
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accommodate this expansion with
a clear migr ation p ath so th at
none of the customizations previously made are lost. The LI MS
may also need to interface with
other databases, such as accounting, inventory, or material safety
data sheet (MSDS), which increases the importance of selecting a system that is ODBC compliant with a solid database design.
LIMS selection considerations
• Database engine (ISAM, SQL,
proprietary) choices
• System features to match user
• Current hardware and software
available in the laboratory
• Ease of use, on-line help, technical support, trainin g, and
upgrades available for the vendor
• Flexibility to accommodate a
changing laboratory environment
• C o s t / R O I (return on investment) considerations.
If the above criteria are examined, the database choices are
much easier to make than they
used to be. Most laboratories align
themselves with database market
leaders such as Microsoft and Ora cle. Users need to define their system requirements by meeting with
key laboratory managers and staff
to determine which areas of the
l a b o r a t o ry require improvement
and to discuss areas that would
benefit from automation. Many
laboratories have made significant
in vestments in hardware and
would like to leverage those investments, if possible, to utilize the existing hardware for the LIMS. Howe v e r, it should be noted that
although this sounds reasonable,
sometimes it is more cost effective
to invest in hardware upgrades or a
replacement. When learning any
new software product there is a
learning curve. Be sure that the
software selected is intuitive and
easy for the analysts to learn. It is
also critical to select a LIMS vendor
that offers training programs and
superior technical support. The
LIMS should allow users to make
changes to accommodate the way
in which the laboratory does busi-
Figure 1 Schematic representing typical LIMS workflow.
ness. For example, the LIMS should
allow users to change field names
on-screen to terminology that is familiar in their laboratory. Reports
should be easily modifiable and
end-users should be able to incorporate new screens into the program to accommodate special projects or new functionality. Finally as
in any business, the laboratory
owner must consider the return on
investment for the LIMS. By transferring mundane tasks to the LIMS,
the analysts are available to analyze additional samples and work
on method development.
Laboratories are in the information business. Those that can deliver quality information to their
clients ahead of their competitors
will emerge as market leaders. Before selecting a LIMS it is important to have a clear understanding
of exactly what the laboratory ’s
data management requirements
are, in addition to the benefits that
the laboratory can expect to gain
from a LIMS and automation. Fig ure 1 displays sample flow through
a typical laboratory.
It is also important for laboratories to have a clear understanding of the current operations and
where they will receive the largest
return on investment. Once the
laboratory has established a shopping list of system requirements, it
is important to evaluate systems
based on r equirements via live
demonstrations and a questionand-answer session.
Perhaps the most common reasons for acquiring a LIMS are to decrease turnaround time, enhance
reporting, and to improve overall
data quality. Turnaround can be
greatly enhanced with a rapid sample log-in process. A LIMS analyst
can pull names from a client list
with client-specific pricing and QC
already set up; thus, this information does not have to be reentered
each time. With a LIMS, not only
can samples be logged in faster (bar
codes can also be utilized), but
there is complete chain of custody
and a full audit trail, and worklists
can be generated as well as backlog
and production reports. The laboratory manager can determine a sam-
Figure 3 Typical LIMS client/server
Figure 2 Sample Master results query.
p l e ’s status at any time without
running through the laboratory
from department to department to
find the sample. After sample login, the area often requiring the
greatest improvement is reporting
and the ability to automatically
generate reports from the LIMS.
These reports (such as Certificates
of Analysis, result reports, etc.) can
be autofaxed, autoprinted, auto-emailed, or displayed on a Web site
in read-only format. The Internet is
also revolutionizing laboratory ebusiness; results can be e-mailed to
clients, worklists to employees, as
well as out-of-specification warnings to employees, at minimal cost
and with great speed.
A LIMS can also significantly enhance data quality by verifying
data format, providing an audit
trail, reducing data entry errors, decreasing data search time, and limiting users to selecting a test or
method from a pull-down list
(helping to ensure a “clean” database, i.e., no multiple spellings for
the same test, matrix, or method)
(Figure 2). Automatic calculations
limit checking upon data entry,
and data validation together with
instrument integration greatly increase productivity since analysts
do not have to hand-enter results
from the instruments into a spread-
sheet or report. This also decreases
transcription errors and improves
data quality.
A success fully implemented
LIMS will increase laboratory productivity, improve data accuracy,
and increase the laboratory’s overall effectiveness. A LIMS can organize all the information that is
pertinent to the laboratory and allows for rapid data retrieval and
reporting. It also allows data to be
accessible to others, promoting
collaboration among different departments. In addition, many laboratories utilize either a local or
wid e area network that allows
users to share network printers
and information. Most LIMS are
set up in a true client/server configuration (Figure 3). In this configuration, the database tables reside
on the server and the graphical
user interface resides on the client
machines. The advantage of this
configuration is that data processing occurs on the server.
A LIMS can be a powerful tool
that gives the laboratory a competitive advantage over other laboratories, saving time and money.
Benefits of LIMS implementation
include faster turnaround times,
automation, increased productivi t y, higher quality of data, electronic reporting, and integration
with other enterprise databases.
With the decreasing hardware and
software costs and growing acceptance of the Internet, the time for
laboratories to move from paper
tracking systems to a LIMS h a s
never been better. Not all laboratories operate in the same way, so
it is extremely important that a
L I M S match the laboratory flow
and have the flexibility to accommodate future changes in laboratory operations.
Additional reading
Miller T. Windows-based LIMS provides flexible information management Sci Comp Auto 1997;
Nakagawa AS. LIMS i m p l e m e n t a t i o n
and management. Cambridge:
Royal Society of Chemistry, 1994.
Mahaffey RR. LIMS applied information technology for the laboratory.
NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990.
Hinton M. Laboratory information
management systems; development and implementation for a
quality assurance laboratory, Marcel Dekker, NY, 1995.
Kolva D. Can one LIMS system fit the
needs of both small and large labs?
Sci Comp Auto 1997; Jul:68.
Paszko C. Extending LIMS functions
over the Internet, inside laborat o ry manageme nt. A OAC Int
1998; Apr:19.
Paszko C, Miller T, Vranken R. Plugging into LIMS: evolution and advancs in the age of PCs. Env Test
Anal 1998; Sept./Oct.:22–4.
Dr. Paszko is Director, Sales and Mar keting, and Ms. Pugsley is Marketing
Assistant, Accelerated Te c h n o l o g y
Laboratories, Inc., 496 Holly Grove
School Rd., West End, NC 27376,
U.S.A.; tel.: 800-565-LIMS ( 5 4 6 7 ) ,
910-673-8165; fax: 910-673-8166;
e-mail: [email protected]
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