Why the Pen is Not Always Mightier: Legibility in Laboratory Data

By: Steve Ferrell, Chief Compliance Officer
data integrity

Have you ever been told you ‘write like a doctor’? If you have, odds are it wasn’t a compliment recognizing your superior cursive or your masterful ability to spell ‘acetaminophen’ without a spell check. It’s much more likely to have been a lament over the indecipherable scribble you’ve just jotted down. Fortunately, the art of writing with a pen, pencil, or ink-dipped quill is fast disappearing as an elective form of official data capture or communication.

Although laboratories are the very image of modernity in so many ways, they have been uncharacteristically slow in accepting the obsolescence of trusty old writing implements. For all their love of science and order and gleaming bits of new equipment, lab techs have clung desperately to their pens, even as Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELN) in QC Labs and LIS systems in testing labs have become nearly ubiquitous. Although most seem to understand the practicality of these new tools on a conceptual level, old habits really do die hard.

QC Labs have already spent quite a while getting used to the idea of existing in the digital age: Lab instruments hooked up to PC’s, PC’s feeding LIMS systems (Limfinity® being the best, thank you very much) and then – importantly – much of the data transcribed via link onto controlled forms and lab notebooks. Consider that while many pharmaceutical companies have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into their QC labs, their highly automated workflows often end with a pen and a paper notebook.

We don’t have to continue to accept that the legibility of any given result has long been dependent on the penmanship (or penwomanship) of the lab tech, their level of fatigue at the time, and the amount of ink left in their pen. The ELN has provided the required fix, filling in an important piece of the electronic recordkeeping jigsaw puzzle, and massively reducing these long-enduring legibility and related issues of the manually record-kept lab.

In the testing laboratory, the electronic age offers incredible efficiency and process improvements, and simple though it may seem, eliminating the uncertainty inherent in deciphering handwriting is fairly revolutionary. Platforms like our LimitLIS® system have a host of futuristic features, but what may have changed the game most dramatically for some labs was simply ensuring the legibility of patient samples, test codes, and other information with crisp, high-definition typographic clarity.

I would posit that when the pen-to-electronic transition is finally achieved in full, ‘legibility’ is the lowest risk and most easily achieved of all of the Data Integrity principles. Yet, one must keep in mind that just because something is legible doesn’t make it accurate; which is why our next blog will focus on the criticality of contemporaneous data in the lab.

Until then, keep the scribbling to your diary or that screenplay, and leave the lab notes to technology.