Making the Move from Paper to Electronic
Is electronic document control as important as some say it is? For one ISO 17025 Accredited Laboratory it has become a necessity to deal with the continual increase of document volume.
Southwest Louisiana (SWLA) Crime Lab is a regional crime lab located in Lake Charles, Louisiana, that serves five parishes, or counties, in its surrounding area. With over 30 years of experience, the lab specializes in controlled substances, blood alcohol, DNA, and fingerprinting.
SWLA Crime Lab is accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) International. According to the ASCLD/LAB website, accreditation is earned when a lab demonstrates that “its management, operation, personnel, procedures, and instruments; physical plant and security; and personnel safety procedures meet certain standards.” One element of ASCLD/LAB International accreditation is compliance to ISO 17025 standards. ISO accreditation requires a tremendous amount of documentation and organization; it can be a very stressful process.
“In addition to the time and effort it took to maintain our ISO accreditation, we were trying to manage many of our electronic documents on a server that we shared with the local sheriff’s department. Our documents were hard to find, track, and organize,” notes Lynell Benoit, QA Manager of SWLA Crime Lab. “Document revisions were very difficult and tedious to maintain; we wanted a tool to make the whole process simpler.”
A Clear Solution
The continual increase of document volume drove SWLA Crime Lab to shop around for a document control solution. The solution to the lab’s document control needs came directly from an industry forum. “We rely on other professionals in our field,” commented Ms. Benoit. “We chose an electronic solution that was recommended on an industry message board.”
One unforeseen benefit of moving to an electronic system was a shift from paper-based processes to electronic processes. “I had no idea [electronic processes] would be so helpful. Many of our processes are now electronic—so far we track vacation requests, training, chemicals, travel, and performance metrics related to cases and samples. We have plans to put more of our processes into the database. It just makes sense to move in that direction,” said Ms. Benoit.
The ISO 17025 Challenge
Document control is an essential element of running a successful laboratory. In the forensic field, a majority of the documents that come through a lab have to be retained for life. For example, if a case that is twenty years old were to resurface, the lab responsible for that case must have documentation showing policies and procedures used at that time on file. This presents an obvious problem for any lab that relies on a paper-based system. Before moving to an electronic solution, SWLA Crime Lab stored hundreds of thousands of printed documents in a traditional filing system.
Since implementing the new document control software, SWLA Crime Lab has moved a huge majority of its printed documents to the new system. “Anything that we’re not required to have on file as a hard copy is stored in an electronic format,” stated Ms. Benoit. “We’ve practically emptied out our building. Our lab has space!”
In addition to increased floor space since moving to electronic storage, the lab has noticed time savings when looking for specific documents. In her interview, Ms. Benoit mentioned that documents are much easier to find, even when she does not know where to begin looking. The searching capabilities with an electronic document control system have made document searches much simpler for lab personnel.
Employees have also found great benefit in having increased control over document revisions. Lab personnel no longer rummage through folders and files to track down previous versions of documents—everything they need is organized in one, secure location.
The SWLA Crime Lab is a small operation that is run by less than twenty employees; every single employee uses the new system to some extent. In order to maintain accreditation, certain documents must be reviewed by specific employees on an annual (and sometimes quarterly) basis. The lab now manages all of this information and stays current on all document review deadlines by using its new system. In addition, all employee vacation requests and many training procedures are processed and stored electronically.
A Simpler World
Ms. Benoit has been a pioneer for her laboratory in the cross-over from a paper-based system to electronic document and process control. When asked what advice she would give to others looking to make a similar transition, she responded, “I would recommend moving to an electronic system to anyone. It’s made my world much simpler.”
Katie Gignac is the Marketing Coordinator for Qualtrax, Inc. (www.qualtrax.com/forensics) which provides document control and process automation solutions for forensic labs and other regulated entities. Katie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.