Kelly Lockwood, project transition lead, and Holly Jeffreys, analyser and interfacing product specialist, discuss the role of analyser interfacing in a modern laboratory, and pass on their advice for doing it well – whether part of a large LIMS deployment or procuring a new analyser.
A laboratory information management system manages workflow and stores the information required for reporting. To do its job, it needs to be seamlessly interfaced with the myriad of analysers that run pathology tests.
Kelly Lockwood, project transition lead, says: “These machines are real workhorses, dealing with thousands of specimens every day. Yet they come from different manufacturers and use different ‘languages’ to speak to the IT systems around them. Our job is to make sure the LIMS can communicate with all of them, equally.”
To do the job, labs need a data manager – like Clinisys SampleNet. This acts as a single repository for all the drivers that connect the LIMS to the analysers and other third-party devices. When a lab is planning a new LIMS deployment, one of the things it will need to do is map out all the interfaces that will be needed.
That can be a big job – but it will go faster if the lab can find someone to help. “At the beginning of a project, we will set up a site visit and do a survey of everything that is in place,” Kelly says. “But having somebody with good knowledge makes life much easier.”
If you’re putting in a new LIMS, find someone with a good knowledge of your analysers and instruments to work with the interfacing team.
A modern data manager will come with a library of ready-made drivers. “Any analyser we have encountered will have its own driver and documentation for implementing it,” Holly Jeffreys, analyser and interfacing product specialist, explains. “If there isn’t a driver available, we work with the developers of SampleNet to make a bespoke driver for that new analyser. In some cases, such as instruments utilising file transfer protocol (FTP), we can also use a generic FTP driver and map the data ourselves.”
Having a big package of ‘off the shelf’ drivers available makes interfacing at scale and speed easier than it would be otherwise – but all these interfaces will need to be tested. And, as Holly points out, labs can’t just take everything offline to do the work.
“Lots of manufacturers have test environments and test scripts, but they need to know they are needed,” she says. “If the lab managers get involved early, and talk to their suppliers, and say ‘we are getting a new LIMS and we’ll need your interface codes and test environment’ they can get ready.”
Start talking to suppliers as early as possible – that way, they can be ready to test when you are.
Of course, a deployment isn’t the only time that analysers will need to be linked up to the LIMS. Laboratories buy new kit all the time, as science moves on, new tests are developed, or new conditions strike.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Clinisys interfacing team was kept busy building interfaces and interfacing analysers as suppliers and labs scrambled to respond to the demands being put on them. “Covid hit most countries in Europe at more or less the same time, so we had a lot of labs wanting to plug in new analysers all at once,” Kelly says. “Fortunately, we were able to be very, very responsive.”
Outside of a pandemic, planning is key. “Clinisys has 60% of the market in the UK, so we have seen a LOT of instruments,” Kelly says. “Even if we haven’t seen something before, we work internationally, so we can leverage our network to see if we can find someone who has.
“That’s valuable, because it means we don’t have to build a bespoke interface; although we can do that if we really need to. The trick is to talk to us early. Because sometimes we do hear: ‘We’d like to go-live the day after tomorrow’ – and we have to say: ‘That might not be possible…’”
Whether it’s a new LIMS or a new instrument, think about interfacing as soon as possible.
Although the main job of a data manager is to consolidate interfaces, it can do a lot more. SampleNet comes with a rules engine that can be used to determine which analyser a sample will be sent to and the specific result type to be reported back to the LIMS: percentage value vs absolute value, for example.
Labs can customise the rules to some extent and Holly argues they should think about how to make best use of the opportunities this provides. For example, she says, although pathology networks will want a lean and efficient flow through their laboratories, they can also build in resilience for when things go wrong.
“SampleNet can send an order to any analyser, so if there are two or three that can do the job, it can inform all of them that a test may be on the way,” she says. “That means that in a hub and spoke set-up we can send an order to multiple sites. Then, if there is a flood or a power cut at one lab laboratory staff can send everything over to another one, and the analysers will be ready to go.”
Use the rules engine in the data manager to create efficient but resilient workflows.
A modern data manager will also have a dashboard that shows the network manager how all the analyser connections are performing – and even, in some cases, enable them to reboot remotely. Being able to see what is happening across the network is only going to get more important as new innovations come in and laboratory networks get larger.
Laboratories at the moment are very interested in automatic registration, which involves loading samples into a hopper, instead of having to use people to scan samples and match them with their order on the LIMS.
They’re also interested in extending the use of digital microbiology and histopathology, in which traditional cultures and slides are turned into digital images, that can be reported from more sites, often with the help of augmented decision-making tools.
“Because you can get so much more work done, we’re expecting to see both of these areas grow and grow,” Holly says. “So, we have to interface to those systems. It’s complicated. But we do it. It’s just part of the Clinisys business, because pathology technology is constantly evolving and we have to keep up!”
IN SUMMARY, top tips for successful interfacing
1. Start early
2. Make the most of our vast library of off-the-shelf interfaces and global expertise
3. Put your experts in touch with our experts
4. Make the most of your data manager to create a responsive and resilient service and
5. Think ahead.