$$ - Dedicated Label Printers

Why?

As their name suggests, dedicated label printers do one thing and one thing well: print labels!

Given that all medical practices have printers capable of working with a range of media, the notion of a dedicated label printer may be strange to some, however many will attest to the convenience and efficiency such devices can bring to a practice.

While windowed envelopes are another option, the scenario that dedicated label printers contrast best with is the printing of labels onto A4 sheets. This solution is ideal for large print runs, however most labels printed in medical centres are done in an ad hoc fashion, which invariably means label paper needs to be re-fed through the printer. In addition to monopolising the printer, manual re-feeding of label paper can cause paper jams and degradation of both the paper and printer. While most label printing software assists with the task, staff need to be mindful of which labels on the sheet have already been printed. This additional step adds complexity to what should be a simple procedure.

Hardware

While there are more expensive options, label printers typically purchased by medical practices are based on “direct thermal” technology. This printing process applies heat directly to the labels themselves, causing a reaction that changes the appropriate parts of the label to black. This technology negates the need for ink or toner and means that the only consumable required is the labels themselves.

Direct thermal technology has matured over the past few years with improvements to both speed and resolution. Typical speeds are quoted at 40-60 labels per minute printing up to 300dpi, a resolution which is more than sufficient for text and simple graphics. The sound level emitted during label printing has also improved, with currently shipping models producing far less noise than the models they replaced.

Software

Printers from the leading manufacturers install software that integrates with popular Microsoft Office software including Word, Excel and Outlook. The printers also ship with label software that allows for finer control of the printing process.

Using only the supplied printer driver and correct paper size settings, all practice software should be compatible with label printers, however some developers have chosen to tightly integrated label functionality to make the process easier.

The Labels

As with all printers, the size of the labels a dedicated device can print to is limited by the width of its printing mechanism. Label printers suitable for medical practices typically have widths of up to 60mm, with the length being determined by whether rolls of individual stickers or continuous label paper is used.

A variety of label sizes, colours and materials are available, including circular labels suitable for placement on the middle of CDs and DVDs.

Costs

As with their laser and bubble jet cousins, label printer manufacturers appear to be following a loss leading strategy (i.e. selling the hardware as cheap as possible and attempting to make money on the consumables).

Label printers suitable for most medical practices start just below $150, with models touting extra features (that are generally unnecessary) costing up to $400 and beyond.

As the labels are the only consumable required to operate these devices, calculating and monitoring ongoing costs should be fairly straightforward.

The table below gives examples of market prices for various label options. As expected, A4 sheets of labels sold in 100 sheet quantities are cheaper per label, however by a far smaller margin than I expected. This margin that would be reduced further if the cost of toner was incorporated into the price of the Avery A4 label sheets.

Considerations

Because of the way the thermal printing technology works, care should be taken to prevent the labels from being subjected to high temperatures or long periods of exposure to direct sunlight. As I found out first hand, leaving labels in a car on a hot day can degrade the label, although in my case the labels were still useable with the text remaining visible against a slightly grayed background.

Other reviews of direct thermal label printers suggest that the print on the labels is likely to fade over time, however I haven’t had the opportunity to see this eventuate first hand. In any case, practices are advised to discuss this possibility with the manufacturer of the label printer prior to using the device for tasks where the quality of the label needs to be maintained in the long term (e.g. archival storage, patient files etc).

Conclusion

For practices that routinely print labels in an ad hoc fashion, a dedicated label printer is likely to complement and potentially replace traditional A4 labelling workflows.

While laser and bubble jet printers can do everything a dedicated label printer can, I believe a dedicated label printer is a more efficient solution for most labelling tasks in typical medical practices.

Though slightly more expensive per label than those sold in packs of A4 sheets, the efficiency gains staff will enjoy will far outweigh this cost and quickly offset the initial purchase price of the new printer.

Posted in Australian eHealth

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