Focus on Sample Reception


We catch up with Aileen Francis and Georgina Arnold, Heads of Sample Reception at the Halo and Sonic’s Manchester site respectively.

Aileen Francis

Aileen FrancisSample reception is the first port of call for all samples that come into our laboratories for testing. It is here that all of the pre-analytical work takes place: all samples need to be labelled, entered into the database, triaged and distributed to the appropriate laboratory.

Aileen (right) explains that working in SRA requires very broad knowledge:

Working in SRA you need vast knowledge on tests, sample types and where samples are processed. You need to know about various departments such as Blood Sciences, Microbiology, Histology and many others. The best way to understand all processes in a laboratory is to start off in SRA.

Both the Halo and Manchester SRAs receive postal work on top of their daily courier work. Postal work arrives in the morning from all over the country, and the Halo even receives international work, with drop offs from various clinics continuing throughout the day (and night, in the Halo’s case).

At the Halo, a recent structural shake up has placed Aileen in the new role of Head of Sample Reception. She sits above two deputy managers, and currently heads up a team of about 100, which constitutes the main team and the Covid team. The latter was brought in to focus specifically on Covid samples, so as to cope with the “immense workload”. The size of her team is constantly changing, as a result of the inevitable fluctuations in the size of the Covid team. At the height of the pandemic, she managed around 150 staff.

With just under 6,000 samples coming through on a daily basis, they deal with a staggering volume. That number includes about 1,000 Covid samples, but during the virus’s peak, the figure was closer to 12,000.

Aileen didn’t always envisage herself ending up here: she studied Biomedical Science at university, with a view to becoming a biomedical scientist.

She gained experience as an MLA at Northwick Park Hospital, and did take some top-up modules, but quickly came to the conclusion that becoming a scientist wasn’t for her. She was being given supervisory and deputy manager roles, working her way up, and was enjoying this side of things much more than she expected, and so ultimately decided to go down the managerial route.

Sonic Healthcare UK has been instrumental in the development of her leadership skills, and she is currently taking the ‘Preparing to Lead’ course:

“There have been a lot of courses that Sonic has provided over the years. The ‘Preparing to Lead’ course has been really helpful in broadening my knowledge and understanding of how best to produce an effective team”.


Georgina Arnold

Georgina ArnoldChange has also been afoot in Manchester, with the transfer to the new site in early 2021, and a sudden uptake in the team’s workload during that time: Georgina (right) notes that it almost quadrupled. This in turn required the onboarding of a number of new staff, which presented its own challenges: training them to a sufficient standard quickly and all at once.

When the workload increased “out of nowhere” last year, it prompted Georgina and the team to interrogate their processes:

“I asked whether we were doing everything as leanly as possible, and whether there was anything that we could get rid of - just to make sure that we were being as efficient as possible. That was quite a challenge in itself.”

Georgina now heads up a team of 43, which includes six supervisors, for whom she is not short of praise:

“It’s an absolutely brilliant team. They are so adaptable and cope with everything so well. Without them, nothing would really function in SRA. I’m really grateful for them”.

She particularly notes how well they managed to deal with the recent changes:

“The staff were absolutely amazing at dealing with that increased workload. SRA also did absolutely fantastically in the transfer to the new site. It was a really big change going into a new laboratory: adapting to the processes in a new location, while ensuring zero disruption to the services we provide.”

Georgina’s background is very different from Aileen’s. She joined Sonic Healthcare UK almost two years ago, but had spent the previous 12 years in the British Army, working with a number of different branches that afforded her a lot of different skills and the ability to work with a diverse range of people.

Although the move to the civilian world was somewhat of an adjustment, the skills she learned in the military were all transferrable, and especially so in a laboratory context:

“Especially within the military you need to have such a strong attention to detail, and I think it was good to bring that skill to my work within a laboratory, where everything has got to be so accurate and precise.”

Her lack of laboratory experience also ultimately helped her improve their general operations:

“I think it was good that I didn’t have any background laboratory experience, because it meant I was questioning everything: I was asking why we do certain things in certain ways, simply because I didn’t know. This inadvertently threw up opportunities to improve operations: I looked at the processes and found ways of simplifying them as much as possible.”

Clearly an enormously important department, SRA stands firmly on the front line and sets the standard of quality for every sample’s onward journey.

Thank goodness, then, that Sonic Healthcare UK’s SRA Managers oversee such an important operation with such military precision (military background or otherwise!).