Improving cytology lab safety and efficiency with direct-to-slide printers

Oct. 18, 2013

It can be difficult to manage specimen slide labels in a cytology laboratory environment. Slides can come into contact with strong chemicals that can peel off printed labels, smear handwritten information, and obscure printed data. Even if the slide stays dry, handwriting that is difficult to decipher can make identifying information difficult to read, which can result in clinical laboratory professionals matching specimens to the wrong patient.

Other problems can crop up in labs that use a centralized printing area. If a staff member prints a label from a workstation and then retrieves it at a printer used by other staff, there is always the chance of a labeling mix-up. These are just a few of the problems that can occur in labs that handle specimen analysis, and when mistakes happen, they can have serious consequences.

When physicians and allied health professionals order lab tests, they rely on the laboratory to provide accurate data that is then used to make important medical decisions. In the United States, hundreds of millions of tests are ordered each year. Mistakes are a major concern because they waste money and, more important, can jeopardize patients’ lives and health.

For this reason, healthcare organizations, private insurers, and government agencies have renewed their focus on reducing medical errors, including those that result from lab mistakes. One way to improve accuracy in cytology labs is to find better ways to track and label specimens. The right printing technology can be an excellent solution.

Using printing technology to reduce errors

Labs of all types can start reducing errors by streamlining processes and using technology to improve operations. It may not be possible to completely eliminate errors, but better workflows and new tools can go a long way toward eliminating many of the more common ones. And by improving processes and using superior technology, labs can also benefit from more effective and efficient operations.

Thanks to technical advances, it is now possible for labs to affordably purchase small direct-to-slide printers for each workstation, enabling clinical laboratory professionals to print patient information directly on the slide. Direct-to-slide printers completely eliminate errors caused by illegible handwriting. They also address the issue of harsh chemicals obscuring and degrading printed labels: direct-to-slide printers use specially formulated ink that resists the types of chemicals typically found in lab environments and are resistant to alcohol, reagent, stain, xylene heat, and light degradation.

Another way direct-to-slide printers can improve lab efficiency and reduce costs is by allowing technicians to print colors on demand. Many labs use special color-coded slides and slides imprinted with lab logos. By using a color-capable direct-to-slide printer, staff can print color-coded slides without depleting a central inventory, and lab operations professionals do not have to track slide inventory and reorder color-coded and logo-imprinted slides. It’s a more efficient way to handle color coding.

Print and slide management software is another operational advantage labs can leverage when they use a direct-to-slide printer. Depending on which product they choose, lab managers can combine direct-to-slide printers with software that provides templates to collect and manage slide data. Software options are available that can fully integrate direct-to-slide printers with the laboratory information system (LIS) so that staff can gather data directly from the LIS to use in slide printing operations.

Another advantage in printer technology that can improve laboratory performance is the smaller size and affordability of the direct-to-slide printers that are currently on the market. This enables labs to purchase and install direct-to-slide printers in every workstation, which eliminates the possibility of staff picking up the wrong slides at a centralized printing station. It also streamlines workflow, meaning that lab personnel can focus on processing their own slides rather than printing and then retrieving slides at a distant printing station.

Selecting the right printer

An array of direct-to-slide printers are now available, and lab managers who are looking to printer technology as a way to cut error rates, improve operational efficiency, and reduce costs have several options. The best approach is to compare printer features, identify operational needs, and evaluate how available printers can deliver value—prior to making a decision. Here are some factors that most lab directors will consider.

•  Organizational goals. Minimizing lab errors should be the top objective, and the right direct-to-slide printer can go a long way toward achieving this goal. However, there are other advantages labs that convert to direct-to-slide printing gain, such as greater efficiency and cost savings. Lab management personnel who are assessing available direct-to-slide printers should keep the price and features in mind to achieve the greatest benefit, considering factors such as the more streamlined workflows that can result from installing printers in each workstation.

•  Durability. Since ordinary lab operations will expose all equipment to harsh chemicals, stringent liquids, and strong cleaning solutions, lab managers should make sure the direct-to-slide printer they choose is capable of holding up over the long term. It is a good idea to inquire about such factors as print head life, routine maintenance recommendations, and service procedures. It is also advisable to ask for recommendations and do market research to ensure printers under consideration can withstand heavy use, particularly if yours is a high-volume facility.

•  Cartridge design. To maximize efficiency and expedite specimen analysis, look for a printer that enables personnel to quickly and easily change cartridges. Also make sure the cartridge design protects slides from dust and enables staff to easily determine how many slides are loaded into a cartridge. If the direct-to-slide printer features front-loading cartridges, this can expedite cartridge changes so that they can quickly load the type of slides they need for each task. It may be advisable to avoid direct-to-slide printer models that don’t use removable cartridges, as this design can make slide replacement a challenge.

Choosing the right print technology

Today, the direct-to-slide printers on the market use three different print technologies: thermal transfer, solvent inkjet, and laser. With thermal transfer technology, the printer melts the image onto the white frosted slide surface via a heated thermal print head on an ink ribbon. This enables use of commonly available, affordable frosted slides. With a newly released feature that is now available on the market, labs can use only white frosted slides and print a logo or color block to manage color-coding needs. This eliminates the need to manage an inventory of slides in different colors.

Another technology used in direct-to-slide printers is solvent inkjet, which operates similarly to home printers, spraying liquid ink on a printing surface. This type of printer then dries the ink with a heat lamp or fan. Solvent inkjet printers typically restrict users’ slide choices and only print in a single color.

Laser direct-to-slide printers use laser beams to burn an image on a slide designed for that purpose. These printers require use of a proprietary slide design, and only single-color printing is available.

There are pros and cons to each type of printing technology. When considering purchase of a direct-to-slide printer, it is a good idea to ask about the cost per slide, inquire about hardware and maintenance expenses, and make a decision based on all of these factors.

Reducing errors and improving efficiency

As lab managers seek new ways to reduce errors and improve efficiency, they evaluate risk reduction methods and assess the cost of implementation. Direct-to-slide printers can be part of a successful approach to both error reduction and cost-effectiveness. When considering these advanced printers, lab managers should carefully evaluate their options and find the technology that best meets their particular needs.

Mark D. Strobel is Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Primera Technology. Its products are sold worldwide through Primera Authorized Resellers and Distributors in more than 179 countries. For more information about Primera, please visit