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It happens all too often: a tired technician transposes two numbers, and a positive result becomes a negative. Or a piece of equipment goes too long without maintenance, and drifts out of calibration. As every scientist and laboratory technologist knows, laboratory medicine is only as valuable as it is reliable. But in the unpredictable world of real-time diagnostics, how do we ensure that our instruments and protocols remain on target?

Proficiency testing (PT) is a way to identify and prevent quality problems in the medical laboratory. PT programmes send characterised clinical specimens to participating laboratories on a regularly scheduled basis. These laboratories then process and analyse the specimens as if they were ordinary patient samples, and report their results to the organiser. By working with samples that have known values, laboratories can learn how their results compare to both the validated measurements from each sample, and to the average findings of many peer laboratories. The reports from PT programmes help participating laboratories to pinpoint areas where their testing is unreliable, and often include concrete suggestions for improvement.

PT is one element of the broader system of external quality assessment, EQA. Many authorities around the world use results from PT programmes to assess laboratory performance as part of registration and licensing, in conjunction with annual on-site reviews. EQA is also a requirement for every international accreditation process, an important consideration for laboratories seeking this high-level credential.

To read the full article published in the May 2014 issue of Lab Culture newsletter from the African Society of Laboratory Medicine click in the link on the top right corner of this page or click here to access the full issue.