Those drug commercials you see on tv keep vivariums busy

I’m sure you’ve heard all of those drug commercials on tv.  Yea, those commercials.  The ones that show people skipping through beautiful meadows, doing fun life things, holding hands with their significant other and smiling into each other’s eyes, all while the narrator explains a million side effects and things that could go wrong if you take that happy pill.

So…what’s the connection between those drug commercials and vivariums?

Well, all of those drugs have to be tested to see if they work or don’t work.  And they are first tested on small animals before being tested on humans.  Thousands and thousands of mammals such as mice, rats, guinea pigs, rabbits, and even primates.  This need has created a cottage industry of vivariums, a vital aspect of the drug testing process.  Without vivariums, there would be no new drugs hitting the market.

Here’s a picture of one such vivarium.

In the picture above, every single cage in each rack contains rodents.  And each cage has to be tracked carefully because the animals in each cage are undergoing very specific drug tests.  These animals are typically purchased by a drug manufacturer, and then handed to a vivarium company for housekeeping.  Sometimes the drug company also manages the animals in their own vivarium.  But nowadays—more often than not—the drug company will outsource animal housekeeping to a third party so that they can focus on the drug testing side of the business.

Maintaining animals undergoing strict drug testing procedures—i.e., giving them adequate food, water, basic hygiene, and wellness on a consistent basis—is something that cannot be taken lightly.  Anything that goes wrong with the animals could throw off a long-term drug test and have cascading effects and HUGE time and money costs downstream.  Something no one wants when you are talking about coming up with the next Noazzatall.

So to ensure the validity of the animal tests, record-keeping has to be done daily for each room, rack and cage.  Data collected includes information such as:

  • temperature of the room
  • humidity of the room
  • minimum and maximum temperatures and humidity of the room
  • animal health checks (done twice daily)
  • water and food checks/replenishment
  • lights and HVAC checks
  • feed and bedding changes
  • etc

How are these daily checks documented in most vivarium operations today (in 2018)?

Most of these animal checks are documented manually, on paper forms.  You’d think that in today’s modern world, where everyone is glued to their Instagram feed and checking how many “likes” they got on their last post, the companies that bring you Cialis, Viagra, and Buttblowtazeem would have mostly already switched to digital data collection and documentation of their wondrous magical pills’ animal tests.  Tests that are there to prove out the efficacy of their potent pills and non-harmfulness of such to humans.  Unfortunately, the reality is that no, most data is not being collected any differently than in decades past.  It’s still mostly collected using paper forms and hand written notes.

Here’s an example of a typical rodent log form.

In this example, the form template is in Excel.  Each row is a calendar day of a month.  At the top of the form, you can see that the form is specific to a given room and species.  So if there are rats and mice in the same room, there would be 2 of these forms stored in the room.

When the vivarium employee conducts their checks, they pull out the log book in the room which contains a printed version of the above-Excel form, and they jot down their data on the paper form—with a pen of course—one row per day.  When done, they leave the form in that log book stored in a particular location within that room, go to the next room, and repeat.

So what’s so bad about this paper workflow in vivariums?

Well, nothing is actually wrong with it.  It’s worked just fine for decades.  But with modern technology, there are more efficient ways to do this.  Let’s first take a look at just 3 of the more obvious issues with paper form documentation of vivarium operations:

1. Access to records is not immediate

In a paper-based vivarium data collection process, the forms are filled out by hand and stored in the rooms housing the animals.  If the FDA or client asks about a particular room’s data, someone will have to go to the vivarium, pull the correct sheets, and scan them or take a picture of them.  Then route these scanned images via email to the person asking to see those records.  While not complicated, someone still has to do this.

2. Handwritten data is sometimes difficult to read & interpret

This goes without saying.  Sometimes it’s hard to read someone’s handwriting.  Here’s a screenshot of a rat log that shows a value that was scratched out and written over.  While in this example, it’s pretty clear that the value in question is “42” because of the other rows around that one (ie, the context within the sheet), its not always this cut and dry.

3. The data is analog…you can’t do anything with it unless it’s later entered into a spreadsheet

When you scan a paper document to PDF, it’s basically a picture.  You can’t really do anything with it unless you run OCR on the PDF.  And OCR has its own set of problems.  Usually, this means that if you want to look at trends, run some basic statistics such as average temperature, mean humidity, or other more complex things like trying to correlate temperature fluctuations with the health condition of animals, you are going to have to enter that information into Excel or some statistics software package.

So basically your org is spending payroll dollars to enter the same data twice: once onto paper, and a second time transposing this from paper to Excel.

What if vivarium data was collected using smartphones and tablets?

We’ve been working with a few folks in the vivarium industry on possible ways of modernizing the data collection aspect of their operations.  The concept we have come up with for their reporting dashboard is illustrated below.

In the concept above, doughnut charts would be used to quickly view health conditions of the animals (healthy vs dead) and status for room checks (completed vs not completed).  Toggles above the doughnut charts would allow a manager to switch from viewing the data by building to viewing by species, with date range columns   Values below the doughnut charts would be clickable, taking the user to the inspections matching the filtered criteria.

Administrative and management functions would also be accessible from the left pane navigation, where the admin could update buildings, rooms, animal species, projects, and even user permissions.

Here’s what the daily A.M. inspection/observation form would look like on an iPad oriented in landscape mode.

And here’s the same form in action, running on an iPad but in portrait mode.

Some benefits of a modern digital system

Some of the low-hanging fruit benefits derived from switching to a modern digital data collection system within the vivarium industry includes the following:

  • Real-time access to data.  You can even grant view permissions to your own clients, saving your folks a bunch of time fetching data, scanning it, attaching to email, and sending.
  • Actionable data.  This means that you can actually do something with the data, because it’s not just a picture of a form.  Doing this manually means double-entry work, something that a digital system reduces to a single-entry step.
  • More complete datasets.  Digital systems benefit from validation controls, meaning that you can force a user to enter something, and limit entry of certain values to valid value lists, something that is not possible with paper.
  • Push notifications. The system can quickly notify the right people of a situation (such as a dead animal, unsafe animal conditions, etc).

There are a ton of other benefits that are pretty obvious as well: no more illegible handwriting, no more lost paper sheets, no more chasing down logbooks, no more scanning, and so on.

So how much does this cost?

Less than you might imagine, especially given the payroll cost of doing things manually.   The system runs on any smartphone that virtually everyone already has in their pocket and knows how to operate, so hardware costs are also minimized. And if a digital system helps avoid a single catastrophic problem with a client’s drug testing project, how much is that worth?

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