gloves hands use lab hood area to fill specimen tubes with chemicals

Specimen Tracking: Best Practices for an Effective Lab

If you’re involved in life science research, you understand the critical importance of effective specimen tracking. The ability to track samples through their entire lifecycle and maintain adherence to standard operating procedures (SOPs) is essential to maintaining regulatory compliance and the success of your research. 


Contents: Traceability | Specimen Identification | Lab SOP Standardization


Traceability: Answering ‘What,’ ‘When,’ ‘How’ and ‘Who’

At the core of specimen tracking is the concept of traceability. Specifying the type and source of specimens, with complete metadata and recording details about their collection, processing, and storage, is critical. If you can maintain these records, you can ensure the reliability and integrity of  your specimen inventory. 

With good traceability, you should be able to answer these key questions for each sample:

  • What is the specimen?
    Document details pertaining to the type and source of the samples being used in your lab. This may include information on participants and any derivatives of the samples.
  • When was the sample collected, received, processed and stored?
    Capturing key dates and times in the lifecycle of your samples is crucial for maintaining sample integrity.
  • How were these processes executed?
    Every step in the specimen lifecycle, from collection and storage, to experiments conducted and disposal should be well-documented.
  • Who was responsible for each step?
    Knowing who registered, used or interacted with the specimen in any way helps with troubleshooting and audit preparation.


Specimen Identification: Creating Clear and Unique Identifiers

Proper specimen identification is essential for efficient tracking, but there are multiple factors to plan out. Specimen IDs may be used by both sample tracking softwares and a variety of people in the lab. Understanding the context of each user situation will help you plan your identifiers and labels effectively.

Consider the following when establishing specimen identifiers:

  • Initial Receipt Labels: If you receive specimens, ensure that labels from the collection site are clear and accurate. You may also need to consider de-identifying specimens for compliance purposes.
  • Laboratory-Specific Identification: Define a systematic naming pattern that suits your lab’s needs. This pattern should account for sample uniqueness, aliquots, and the potential for repeat samples.
  • Human-Readable Identifiers: Creating human-readable labels can be immensely helpful in a lab setting. They allow quick identification without relying solely on barcode scanners.


SOP Standardization: Drafting, Updating and Maintaining SOPs for Specimen Tracking

Standard operating procedures should be the backbone of specimen management in the lab. Standardization helps everyone in the lab know exactly what is happening with specimens, improving consistency of processes. When SOPs are in place and consistently used, operations are streamlined and quality and reliability of the data generated is ensured.

Follow these steps to establish effective SOPs:

  • Draft a Sample Life Cycle: Map out the entire journey of your samples within the lab, from receipt to storage, including all potential deviations.
  • Identify Key Variables: Document critical data about the samples, such as incubation times, temperature requirements and media diluents.
  • Capture Decision Points: Define what actions to take when discrepancies or unexpected situations arise during sample processing.
  • Engage Your Team: Ensure that your team members actively participate in the creation and approval of SOPs. Collaboration is key to ensuring compliance with a new system.
  • Regular Updates: SOPs should be dynamic documents. Establish a process for reviewing and updating them as needed, especially as your lab’s operations evolve.


Looking for a software solution to specimen tracking?

Sample management software can be very effective. If your lab is having difficulty tracking samples and straying from these best practices, it may be time to pick a sample management system that meets your needs.

LabKey’s Sample Manager is a cloud-based sample management software solution for sample tracking, freezer management, lab workflow management, and compliance in any lab. Maintain audit-ready logs of any and all specimens, with registration, receipt, aliquot, storage, data, shipping and chain-of-custody information ready to be queried at all times.

Take a tour of Sample Manager to see how it can solve the problems of specimen tracking for your lab.

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