To Be Paperless or Not to Be? The Scientific Laboratory Question

“To be [paperless], or not to be, that is the question.” (Hamlet, Act III Scene 1)

Or at least it used to be the question. Today many labs are finding themselves obligated to move away from using paper in the lab, either for productivity enhancement purposes or just from the need to more easily adhere to regulations that apply to them.   If you are working in one of the labs that is still clinging to a ton of paper and has not turned on the servers and gone electronic, the task of reducing paper is not as daunting as it sounds. Many organizations decide to take baby steps when addressing their paper reduction goals while others throw the whole kit and caboodle in and go entirely paperless all at once. But either way you decide, the most important part is starting the discussion.

What areas should I focus on first?

There are many ways to start the process of ridding yourself of paper in the laboratory. But be careful of productivity pitfalls, elimination of paper doesn’t always lead to increased productivity if your business processes are not looked at holistically. One way is to start with reducing or eliminating the paper from the least complicated business processes such as equipment maintenance.  Alternatively, others like to start with more complicated business processes first where they can get the biggest bang for the buck like instrument integration. Areas, where reductions in the amount of paper used can be generally made, are listed below, in no particular order of effort:

  • Customer Orders or Ordering Systems
  • Sample Management (tracking the sample from receipt to report)
  • Instrument/Equipment Maintenance
  • Material Maintenance and Tracking
  • Instrumentation Integration or SDMS Systems
  • Reporting, e.g. automating printing (for physical mailings), faxing, email, or website delivery of reports.
  • Reagent/Standards Management

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Full Paperless or Just Less Paper?

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.” (William Shakespeare)

Don’t look to others to establish what is best for you with regards to how much, if not all paper, to eliminate. The return on investment to go fully paperless may not be there for your lab organization and forcing a lab to go entirely paperless can cause undue financial and employee stress that can adversely affect your operation.  For example, do you need to have an electronic form that needs to be filled out interactively to record the maintenance for each individual lab instrument as it is completed?  Or could you just use a business process where paper lab instrument maintenance worksheets are scanned at the end of the day and the pdf files are then stored in a file server?

Here are some paper sources that you may want to put off eliminating, at least initially.

  • Equipment worksheets, e.g. temperature logging
  • Instrumentation that is not integrated or reviewed electronically
  • Reagent/Standards preparation and creation management

Weighing the decision to go fully paperless is complicated. Does one need to be without paper completely? The decision cannot be made lightly. Introducing new technology or new lab practices into the lab too quickly can cause disruptions within the laboratories’ workflow.  Strategic deployment of these new processes should be carried out in stages (faster is not always better).  At the conclusion of each stage, it may be determined that the percentage of paper eliminated is sufficient to meet your goals and you no longer need to continue to rid your lab of the last of the paper. To help determine if you have reached your paper elimination plateau, ask yourself the following questions.

  • Is the paper-based process hindering my ability to review results or reports away from the physical instruments?
  • Do paper costs significantly affect my bottom line? Are we going through reams and reams of paper just to transcribe the data and results from those printouts into my LIMS?
  • Is my Quality effected by paper-based records and audit trails? When validating QC batches or individual results does it take hours to locate the paper records and trace anomalies?
  • Does the lab experience unscheduled downtime due to not identifying problems ahead of time? Moving from paper tracking of QC/QA trending to electronic systems could accelerate the identification of issues before they become big issues.

Paper Epilogue

Watch Now: "The Paperless Lab - A Practical Approach"

There is no right way to go paperless regardless if you elect to go fully paperless or just partially paperless.  There is, however, rarely a good reason not to eliminate as much paper as feasible in your lab processes.  The key to deciding your degree of paper reduction is to determine if the benefits of reducing the paper truly outweigh the costs? What’s best for your lab organization is unique. There are no two labs that are the same, and because of this, there is no simple answer to the question posed in this blog. Listening to the needs of your lab will dictate your path.

“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice” (Hamlet Act I Scene 3).

Have you given your ear to your lab processes and asked the paperless question? Have you decided to go fully paperless or partially paperless?  Do you feel that your quest of attaining a reduced paper state is worthwhile and ongoing? Tell us in the comments below how it’s working out.

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