From CoCs to cell phones

Online chain of custody streamlines your workflow and field data collection.

The paper chain of custody (CoC) has outlived its usefulness and could even undermine the integrity of the sample management process while adding unnecessary cost to your operations. Online CoCs can cost as much as 80% less to prepare and process.

Time to move on from the past

Back in 1970 when the EPA was established, a piece of paper with grid lines and a No. 2 pencil was state of the art for a CoC. Since then we’ve seen some incredible technological advances. Rotary phones, typewriters, and bulky cathode ray tube televisions, have been replaced by smartphones, laptops, tablets, and flat screen TV’s. The changes in tools used by business have been nothing short of remarkable and pervasive. And the pace of that change is accelerating. What about the evolution of the way we track and manage the collection of samples? How has the chain of custody process changed? In an age when your car can park itself and movies are streamed from the clouds, labs are still receiving CoCs in the form of that tired old piece of paper.

That paper—so ingrained in the daily activity of your laboratory and your clients—creates a sludge that flows slowly from the field and through the lab.

  • Once a paper CoC is filled out and sent to the lab, you’ve got double entry of data—the first time out in the field and then again when it’s entered into the LIMS.
  • Every time data is entered and re-entered there are opportunities for transcription errors, which are doubly painful because of the cost of doing it wrong and then the cost of correcting that error.
  • All those paper CoCs, each filled out with a unique handwriting, have a tendency to be confusing or hard to read. Every time that happens, someone from the lab has to make phone calls and spend time trying to figure out what the CoC should really say. Is that the number “1” (one) or the letter “I” (as in, I can’t read this) and did they mean “zero” or the letter “o” in that number?

The cost of handling all those CoCs is “translucent.” We see right through it when we’re running the lab. We know it’s there but because it’s in small pieces and spread out we don’t always pay attention. But think about all those transactions and data entry. A CoC with ten samples may take 15 or 20 minutes to process. And what happens when you find one with an error? Maybe a CoC has traveled halfway through testing before you find the mistake. How long does that take to correct and how many people did it impact? Now multiply all that total labor times the 500 or 1,000 CoCs you do every month. It definitely adds up.

So why do most labs still use paper? Famed scientist Sir Isaac Newton can help us answer part of that question. The first reason is inertia. Once we got used to paper we couldn’t think of anything else and it’s hard to push up hill against the weight of the status quo. The second reason why so many labs still cling to paper is that there hasn’t been a better way to connect all the dots—to connect all the stakeholders in the process. There wasn’t a system that would work for project managers, engineers, and data managers who originate the project, and the sample collectors out in the field who populate the sample data, and the laboratories who process the CoC.

Convergence delivers a breakthrough

With the convergence of advanced computer technology, smartphones and other mobile devices, Internet communications, and cloud computing, we are finally able to construct a system that provides a seamless flow of data. This approach takes us beyond simply entering data into a static PDF form or web page, it is a real-time channel for managing chain of custody and sample information from the field to the lab.

EnviroChain, an online chain of custody service from Promium automates the process in the way described—increasing efficiency and accuracy for you and for your laboratory clients. EnviroChain is a full, interactive, online application with data flowing from the field directly into the LIMS. A consistent and more accurate and repeatable process replaces a paper-based system that relied on hand written notes. EnviroChain introduces the same level of data integrity found in the rest of the information management system. The benefits include:

  • Automation makes collection of sample information more efficient in the field
  • Elimination of manual data entry into your LIMS saves time and reduces costs
  • Reduction in rework by eliminating confusing/incorrect CoCs reduces costs and improves delivery

The process starts with the initial creation of the chain of custody in EnviroChain. This is done by your client (probably a project manager), or in-house if you do your own field work. The work can be done on a computer in the office or on a smartphone or tablet out in the field. Then field personnel conduct the actual sampling activity and update the chain of custody via mobile device. The sampling data is entered into the system as it is being collected. Sampling information, field data, photos, and GPS coordinates are all collected. There is no confusing handwriting or smudged paper. And pre-entered analysis methods and lab information, along with the ability to copy previous CoCs reduces the amount of data entry.

The CoC information is securely transferred directly to the lab in real-time and the samples are packaged and shipped. The laboratory can view the incoming work before it even arrives at the door. And with a direct upload into the laboratory LIMS—of data and not just a static PDF—time consuming data entry is eliminated. This is really the key to the largest benefit. That direct connection eliminates the bulk of data entry (and the resulting errors). The process is more efficient, accurate, and reliable. EnviroChain serves as a digital bridge between laboratories and their clients, while providing both with a more efficient way to manage information.

Cost savings benefit is significant

An average laboratory may process somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 CoCs per year, or 250 to 400 per month. The cost of just the data entry alone is in the $8.00-$10.00 per CoC range if you figure a 25-30 minute processing time and a salary of $40,000 for the login person. That’s $25,000 to $50,000 in direct labor expense annually. An online CoC on the other hand, with a cost of under $1.00 per transaction and five minutes of labor each, would cost in the range of $3,000 to $5,000 for the same volume–an enourmous savings.

The goal of an online CoC is not necessarily to create a paperless office. The goal is to increase efficiency and improve accuracy, using paper when you need it but not when you don’t. In the same way that online banking is replacing check writing, and email is replacing snail mail, the online chain of custody service is providing laboratories and their clients with a streamlined and cost effective way to improve and accelerate the flow of data and samples.