It is difficult to overstate the tremendous role that medical lab tests play in the U.S. healthcare system. Hundreds of millions of tests are ordered each year. Physicians and allied health professionals rely on laboratory test results to provide accurate data that is then used to make critical treatment decisions. Mistakes are a major concern because they waste money and, more important, because they can jeopardize patients’ health and lives. Patient and/or specimen misidentifications are a major category of lab errors.
Risks for errors
Despite the best efforts of laboratory professionals, conditions exist in many labs that make it difficult for them to avoid errors. Slides are often exposed to harsh chemicals. Handwritten cassettes can become illegible, and chemicals can erode the labels that are applied to the slide prior to the staining process. Opportunities for errors are multiplied when laboratorians attempt to label cassettes and slides manually or match specimens with printed labels, especially when the labels are produced away from the work area. These types of procedures can result in the wrong label being applied, or in illegible handwritten cassettes or slide labels being matched with the wrong patient.
The consequences of mislabeled lab specimens can be disastrous for patients, for physicians, and for the reputation of the hospital or other testing facility. In an attempt to reduce the incidence of medical errors, to improve outcomes, and to control costs, many healthcare systems and regulating organizations have renewed their focus on process excellence at all points along the care continuum, including lab testing. One way to improve accuracy in labs is to find better ways to track and label specimens. The right printing technology can be an excellent solution.
Tracking and labeling specimens
Complete elimination of errors may be impossible, but error-free labeling should be the goal. Laboratories can take advantage of direct-to-slide and cassette printing technology to reduce the risk of specimen misidentification—and to improve internal efficiency. Cassette and slide printing technology, which enables high-resolution printing directly onto cassettes and slides, can provide the following benefits:
On-demand, color printing. On-demand printing can help labs reduce errors by enabling staff to print only the number of cassettes and slides they need, when and where they need them. Color printing capabilities can help labs operate more efficiently by eliminating the need to maintain inventory of cassettes and slides in multiple colors.
Chemical and heat-resistant inks. Harsh lab conditions may degrade the ink used in cassette and slide identification, which can increase the possibility of specimen identification errors. Advanced inks for cassette and slide printers can withstand xylene, alcohol, reagent, stain, heat, and chemicals, thereby reducing the incidence of errors.
Direct cassette and slide printing. Printers that let staff print directly onto cassettes and slides can reduce errors due to illegible handwriting directly on the cassette or slide face or slide labels. Direct-slide printing also eliminates the risk of labels falling off slides or becoming jammed in slide processing equipment.
Crisp printed text and barcodes. Using a direct-to-cassette or slide printer with a print resolution of 300 dpi ensures a high-quality, easy-to-read print. Error reduction is increased, as the print is legible and barcodes scan correctly.
Small printer footprint. When lab personnel send print jobs to a central printer, there’s a risk of staff picking up the wrong cassettes or slides. Having the option of a small desktop-sized printer can enable labs to provide a printer for each workstation, eliminating that risk.
Customizable software options. Labs can operate more efficiently with customizable software that enables the use of templates to ensure the collection of all necessary data. Customizable software also allows labs to generate data for laboratory information systems.
Cassette and slide printers that are on the market today offer these advanced features. They can also print high-resolution images to enable labs to use graphics, logos, and two-dimensional barcodes on cassettes and slides to enable clear identification and tracking.
Choosing what’s right for your needs
When choosing a cassette and slide printer, it’s important for lab managers to ensure that they procure a model that will help the facility meet its error reduction and efficiency goals. Features to look for include efficient, hands-free operation and cartridges that enable lab personnel to store cassettes and slides with minimal exposure to dust and contaminants that might affect specimen quality.
Another important consideration is cartridge design: Decision makers should look for cartridges that enable quick changes so that laboratory staff can easily switch cartridge types to accommodate both tissue and biopsy cassettes and standard and charged slide needs. It’s also a plus if staff can quickly ascertain the number of cassettes or slides remaining in the cartridge to expedite printing.
Durability is also an important feature. Cassette and slide printers should be rugged enough to withstand harsh lab conditions, be water-resistant, and be capable of withstanding disinfection from standard hospital cleaning products.
Finally, price is important. Cassette and slide printers come in many sizes and configurations and offer a wide range of features. Before making a purchase, lab managers should ensure that they are getting the most value for their investment.
Nothing is more important than patient safety, which is why it makes sense for lab facilities to frequently evaluate their processes and ensure that they are managing risks effectively. When it comes to specimen misidentification, there are clear steps lab personnel can take to minimize the possibility of errors. Using advanced cassette and slide printer technology can be an excellent option.