Tips for Performing Internal Lab Audits

In previous blog posts we discussed some hints and tips for how to survive when your lab is being inspected. Today we get to flip things around and let you be the inspector. Whether it’s an internal audit of your own laboratory, or an external inspection of a peer laboratory, we’ll discuss some ways to help keep you on track to cover the most important aspects of the overall testing process in a limited amount of time.

For external audit preparation, the CAP has a wonderful training program that all volunteer inspectors are required to take prior to participating in an inspection. For labs that are not CAP accredited, they still have helpful information on their website that is free and open to all: https://www.cap.org/laboratory-improvement/accreditation/inspector-training. CLSI document QMS15-A (Assessments: Laboratory Internal Audit Program; Approved Guideline) is another great resource to use when planning your audit.

The primary role of an auditor is to review policies, processes, and procedures to identify any inconsistencies (does your SOP match the manufacturer recommendations, and is staff following the SOP as written). Audits should focus on collecting objective evidence and facts, rather than subjective opinions. For example, staff failing to document required weekly maintenance tasks, as opposed to an auditor simply not liking the particular form the tasks are being documented on.

Define the Objective of the Audit

Laboratory leadership should be involved in the planning process to help define the scope and expected goal of performing the audit. This can range from an overall assessment of general laboratory quality and safety, to a more directed and focused audit on either a single department, instrument/test, or test process (specimen collection, physician notification of critical values, etc). The format for the audit findings should also be discussed – will the site require a formal, written report outlining all observations detected, or will a simple informal summation discussion be sufficient?

Draft a Schedule for the Audit

Once the scope of the audit is defined, a tentative schedule should be created so all staff involved in the audit process are aware and available to participate. If the audit will encompass multiple departments and all phases of testing (pre-analytic, analytic, post-analytic), it may be necessary to split the audit up over multiple days, or to recruit multiple auditors. The frequency of audits will depend on the perceived risk to quality based on previous findings or complaints received, but at a minimum should be completed annually.

Prepare for the Audit

Reach out to the local management team of the site being audited for help in gathering the information you’ll need to prepare. This can include things such as a testing activity menu, list of new instrumentation or new test validation studies, employee roster if personnel and competency records will be reviewed, and copies of previous audit/inspection results to check for corrective action implementation and sustainability. Review the information provided, and use it as a guide for where you feel your efforts should be focused on based on highest risk.

Utilize a Patient Tracer

Ask the site to pull all related records and reports for a particular patient sample by choosing a date, and specifying any particular characteristics for the specimen that you want to follow (such as age of the patient, sex, or focusing on abnormal/critical results). By asking the sites to prepare a patient tracer ahead of time, this will reduce the amount of time spent waiting and digging for specific files or log sheets as they are already organized and ready when you walk in for the audit. Tracers should adhere to the defined scope/objective of the audit, and will help you follow the path of a specimen through the entire process from pre-analytical, analytical, and finally post-analytical phases.

Pre-analytical: Include any specimen collection instructions or a printout/photocopy from the test directory for each test requested. This information should be compared to the information within the applicable SOPs to ensure they match and are both current and accurate. Physician orders can be included to confirm that the correct test was ordered and performed based on what was requested by the clinician.

Analytical: Copies of the related SOPs for the test being reviewed should be included. Ensure the SOPs have all required elements, including a current, valid signature of approval from the medical director. Instrument QC and maintenance logs for the day of testing, calibration records, and patient correlation studies should also be reviewed, along with the reagent lot-lot validation performed. When available, copies of the actual instrument printouts should be included to check for accuracy in result transcription. Training and competency records for the staff who performed any handling or testing of the specimens in question may also be reviewed.

Post-analytical: Check for supervisory review of patient log sheets and QC records, along with appropriate corrective actions documented as applicable. Review the patient results in the same format that is seen by the physician: confirm reference ranges and units of measure are accurate, interpretive notes are valid and appropriate, test methodology is stated when applicable, abnormal values are flagged, and confirm result transcription accuracy from the original instrument printout. Proficiency testing results should be reviewed for any unsuccessful events to confirm sustainability of corrective actions.

Conduct the Audit

Perform an objective review of the documents provided, along with any affiliated records and logs based on the scope of the audit (temperature logs, reagent inventory records, decontamination records, etc). As with an official inspection, be transparent with the staff as issues are identified so they can have an opportunity to clarify any confusion, or locate additional records that may be missing or incomplete. Document any discrepancies or possible issues noted, as well as any good lab practices observed that should be celebrated. When logging your findings, be specific and provide as much details as possible so the staff can quickly identify what was found and make the needed corrections (SOP numbers, dates, instrument serial numbers, etc).

In addition to reviewing documentation, perform a direct observation of the staff doing specific tasks. Are they following the steps outlined in their procedures, or are deviations noted? Rather than a formal interview, ask the staff to explain what they are doing, or why they are performing certain steps in a particular order. Again, the audit is not meant to be punitive or to ‘catch someone in the act’, but rather to help identify areas for improvement or clarification so that testing processes can be improved and standardized among all staff members. Asking open ended questions will provide more information than directed ones. For example, “Show me how you would access testing instructions if your computer network was down” as opposed to “Where are the paper versions of your SOPs?”

Prepare an Audit Report

The audit findings should be summarized for the site based on the format agreed upon during the initial planning stage (written report, verbal discussion). Whenever possible, similar findings should be grouped together so the location can identify systemic problems that need to be addressed on a more global level (expired reagents found in multiple departments, staff failing to utilize appropriate PPE in multiple departments, etc). Depending on the number and severity of the issues identified, sites may prefer to have the observations grouped by department as well for easy assignment of follow-up action items to the department leaders. Issues should also be ranked by risk severity so that the site knows where to focus their improvement efforts first: 1) Patient care and employee safety issues; 2) Regulatory compliance gaps; 3) Recommendations for improved overall good laboratory practice.

Implement Corrective Actions

Any issues identified during the audit should be assigned to a specific person for follow-up, along with an anticipated date of completion. Perform a proper root cause analysis to identify why the issue happened, and then decide how to correct it and prevent it from happening again. Depending on the scope of the audit, the audit team members may be involved with these tasks, or this may fall to the sole responsibility of the management team being inspected.

Evaluate the Effectiveness of the Audit

The utility of the audits will depend greatly on the commitment of laboratory leadership to both implement, and sustain, effective corrective actions based on the quality gaps identified. This can be assessed by the overall level of compliance with the regulations being checked, and comparing the results of this audit to previous and subsequent ones to hopefully show a downward trend in potential citations detected. The audit team should obtain feedback on the audit process to assess the inspected lab’s overall satisfaction with the program, the amount of support offered to the inspected laboratory, effectiveness of communication between the teams, and any potential areas for improvement in the process.

Performing internal audits is a great way to meet regulatory, accreditation, and customer requirements. It allows you an opportunity to identify non-conformances and risks that can affect both quality, and patient/employee safety. By performing regularly scheduled internal audits, not only will staff members become more experienced and better prepared for the official external inspections from regulatory and accrediting agencies, but the laboratory will move from a culture of reactive, corrective actions to that of a proactive model of continual improvements.


-Kyle Nevins, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM is one of ASCP’s 2018 Top 5 in the 40 Under Forty recognition program. She has worked in the medical laboratory profession for over 18 years. In her current position, she transitions between performing laboratory audits across the entire Northwell Health System on Long Island, NY, consulting for at-risk laboratories outside of Northwell Health, bringing laboratories up to regulatory standards, and acting as supervisor and mentor in labs with management gaps.

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