A successful clinical laboratory delivers accurate, timely results for clinicians and their patients. But there’s the potential for errors in every laboratory environment, so how do you keep these mistakes to a minimum?
Multiple studies indicate that the majority of medical lab errors originate in the pre-analysis and post-analysis stages outside of the laboratory; that is, errors such as incorrect sampling or failing to notify patients correctly of results. Errors inside the clinical lab have decreased significantly over recent years, but they can still be present and can risk staff and patient safety, increase costs and erode confidence in results. As such, there’s enormous incentive to minimise these errors. Where do you begin?
5 key steps to minimise errors in the clinical lab
Lab errors can arise systematically or on a random basis. It’s important to consider diverse aspects including your lab technology, procedures and people when addressing errors in a clinical lab environment. You might begin by focusing on these five key areas.
Ensure lab procedures are up to scratch
Lab procedures that are either poorly designed or poorly communicated can be commonly responsible for common lab errors. Lab procedures should span from the very beginning of the testing process, including patient identification, blood collection and sample handling. Procedures for pre-analytical workstations should be set out, indicating best practices for specimen preparation, centrifugation, pipetting, sorting, storage and retrieval. It’s also important that there are reliable post-analytical protocols in place to deliver results, including those for critical and prioritised tests.
It’s not enough to simply review and optimise these procedures regularly – but also to ensure they’re clearly written, presented and shared with all relevant staff members.
Note: Lab procedures and standards should be part of a wider quality management system, which ideally encompasses essential elements of lab management from worker safety, to purchasing and inventory, to documentation and information management.
Focus on staff training
Inadequate knowledge and training of lab staff is a proven contributor to lab errors. Staff may not be aware of gaps in their knowledge as they prepare or handle samples, or they may struggle to operate new lab technology without adequate training and support. Of course, it can be a challenge to train lab technicians with so many labs feeling the pressure of cost reductions and personnel shortages. But training of laboratory staff has a direct bearing on the reduction of errors in this type of environment, and as such it should be a priority.
The better training and support that teams receive, the more equipped they will be to correctly follow formalised procedures and best practices.
Participate in proficiency testing programs
One effective way of testing and confirming whether your lab is performing tests and measurements competently is to use external assessment schemes. Proficiency testing involves the circulation of samples by a proficiency testing program or authority. Each participating laboratory reports their sample results back to the program or authority to assess their performance against desirable quality specifications. Depending on your lab’s location, proficiency testing may be available for human pathology quality management as well as other life sciences.
Proficiency testing can provide invaluable insights into your lab performance, and build reassurance around your quality control systems.
Use clinical lab automation to its full potential
Lab automation is being increasingly adopted thanks to its many advantages. The most error-prone and complicated lab processes can now be streamlined with new technologies. Lab technicians have fewer manual and repetitive tasks to carry out, arguably freeing up their focus and minimising user errors that might otherwise arise if they were working “on autopilot” to complete mundane activities. Because samples don’t need to be physically handled as often, this can reduce the risk of mix-ups and mistakes while improving biosafety protocols.
The right automated lab equipment will not only carry out tasks but help to identify errors if they arise. For example: our Myra liquid handler not only automates calibration through its integrated camera, but also actively monitors for user errors in deck layout such as missing tubes.
Minimise transcription errors
Manual transcription errors are potentially very dangerous in a clinical lab setting and can be more common than expected – in just one dataset of glucose levels, a troubling 3.7% of manual entries differed from their interfaced values. To minimise the chance of clinicians and patients receiving the wrong transcribed results, it’s ideal to automate as many transcription processes as possible.
This is precisely why we designed the Myra liquid handler and the Mic qPCR cycler to work through the same intuitive software. Both fully integrated systems transmit data seamlessly, dramatically reducing transfer time while maintaining integrity in data management. An additional option to resolve pre-analytical errors is to implement a barcode-based sample management system across patient wristbands, forms and specimens.
Identifying your lab’s error sources
Naturally, identifying the exact source of variability or errors in any specific lab will require a thorough review of its processes, technology and staff support. In any case it pays to be proactive, whether that be through conducting staff surveys or implementing new automated clinical lab automation technology. What’s more, implementing the latter could even assist you to actively identify and avoid common lab errors.
There are many benefits of reducing lab errors in a medical context. Greater accuracy will boost lab safety, confidence in your results, and ultimately help clinicians to deliver a superior level of communication and care to patients.
Try Bio Molecular Systems and produce quality data faster
We’ve developed our biotechnology products to address the most common lab issues, from minimising errors to improving lab efficiency and flexibility. It’s for these reasons that our products are in use all over the world, from COVID-19 diagnostic centres to rugged mobile lab environments.
If you’re interested in trying a free in-lab demo of our qPCR lab equipment including the Mic magnetic induction cycler with CE-IVD and TGA approval, we encourage you to get in touch. We have distributors in your area who can help to arrange a complimentary two-week trial in your lab.