“My professional journey is an LGC story” – an interview with LGC AXIO Proficiency Testing Chief Scientific Officer, Brian Brookman
Brian Brookman, the Chief Scientific Officer for AXIO Proficiency Testing, has been part of the LGC story for longer than the company itself – having first joined the organisation 45 years ago, when it was still known as the UK’s Laboratory of the Government Chemist. He was appointed an LGC Science Fellow in 2020 to reflect his status as “a recognised global leader in sectors including food and beverages, water and environment, clinical, consumer safety, forensic and industrial.” He is also currently chair of several national, European and international proficiency testing (PT) committees. Here, Brian gives us his view of what accreditation bodies are looking for from laboratories with regards to PT participation and PT providers – as well as how practising PT is key to safeguarding performance, and accreditation to essential ISO standards.
Brian, what does being LGC’s Chief Scientific Officer for PT involve?
It’s really about scientific leadership, thought leadership, and networking. Before I became the Chief Scientific Officer, I was the Global PT Director looking after all our sites in the UK, USA, South Africa and China. At that time, there was a considerable expansion of our business, which meant I was already doing a lot of networking. So it was really a case of continuing to increase our profile at ‘the top table’, and helping set the direction of PT internationally through some of that work. I also do that through committees, working groups and boards that I sit on – as well as providing consultancy and training related to PT.
You play a key part in national and international bodies that help to lead and define the role of proficiency testing. Can you tell us more about that?
At the national level, I chair the UK Proficiency Testing Working Group, which consists of representatives from UK-based PT providers, and provides advice and support about proficiency testing.
From there, the UK group inputs into international bodies, and so I also chair the proficiency testing working group of Eurachem - which is a network of organisations in Europe with the objective of establishing a system of international traceability of chemical measurements, and promoting good practice. In addition, I chair a joint stakeholder group in Europe concerned with PT in accreditation.
And then finally, I represent Eurachem as a stakeholder at ILAC, which is the organisation for International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation. I sit on two of their committees, and perhaps most importantly convene the ISO 17043 Working Group, which supports work on issues concerned with the accreditation of PT providers.
What role do these organisations play in the global analytical testing community?
To take the example of the UK working group, one important role is that it serves as the Technical Advisory Committee for UKAS, with regard to the accreditation of UK PT providers, and the use of PT by accredited laboratories.
Eurachem, meanwhile, really provides a forum for pursuing excellence in the development and implementation of PT, and also organises a workshop every three years on proficiency testing that attracts delegates from around the world.
This year’s workshop will be the 10th. The title is Proficiency Testing in Analytical Chemistry, Microbiology, and Laboratory Medicine, and it’s being hosted by LGC in Windsor in September.
So, one of the key areas these organisations are concerned with is laboratory accreditation. But what does it mean to be accredited to ISO/IEC 17025 or ISO 15189? And how important is it for a laboratory?
An accredited laboratory would have been assessed by a recognised accreditation body against one of these two standards - ISO/IEC 17025 is the general laboratory competency standard, but in the medical sector they use ISO 15189, which addresses things that are specific to medical laboratories.
Accreditation is important, because it’s the means of determining the technical competence of testing, calibration and medical laboratories to perform specific types of testing, measurements and calibration. It provides a formal recognition that laboratories are competent, impartial and independent – and so provides confidence to the users of those laboratories’ results.
Is geography an issue in terms of accreditation?
No, because every accredited laboratory will have been assessed to the relevant international competency standard by a national accreditation body. They would have been accredited by the accreditation body in their country - but to ensure the mutual acceptance of accreditation status around the world, ILAC has established what is known as the Mutual Recognition Arrangement, the MRA.
The national accreditation bodies are signatories to the MRA, and they've all been evaluated by their peers as competent. So the arrangement enhances the acceptance of products and services across national borders, and supports international trade by promoting confidence in analytical results. The idea, really, of the ILAC MRA is to deliver the concept of ‘Tested once, accepted everywhere.’
What role does PT play in accreditation?
Basically there's a requirement in key competency standards – let’s say ISO/IEC 17025 and 15189 - that the laboratories need to demonstrate the validity of their results by comparison with other laboratories through participation in PT. So proficiency testing is stipulated in both those standards, and for an opportunity to be accredited, they need to be participating in PT.
More broadly, proficiency testing provides the infrastructure for a laboratory to monitor and improve the quality of its routine measurements – so it's giving the laboratory a framework of regular external and independent assessment.
But also, given that PT plays such an important role in ensuring the validity of results, it's very important that the laboratories themselves can have confidence in their PT provider. So proficiency testing providers can also be accredited to ISO/IEC 17043, which is their own competency standard. Accreditation of PT providers is also part of the ILAC mutual recognition agreement that I have already mentioned. Obviously, the laboratory wants to work with an accredited PT provider, so it can have confidence in the quality, reliability and the integrity of that service.
Do you have any advice on what an accreditation body would want to see in the instance of poor PT performance?
Taking part in a PT scheme provides very little value to a laboratory unless they’re evaluating and interpreting the performance that’s been assessed and reported to them by the PT providers.
Really, those evaluations should be done by the laboratory after every time they take part in a in a round of PT – and throughout continuous PT schemes, which is what AXIO provides.
They should look at their performance over time to evaluate any particular trends in performance – which is something the accreditation body will also wish to see is taking place. On top of that, they will want to see that a laboratory is taking the necessary actions as an outcome of such performance evaluations.
All laboratories will occasionally have unsatisfactory, or questionable, PT results. And then when this happens, they need to be clearly identified and documented. So an accreditation body would want to see that - and more importantly they'd want to see that the laboratory is undertaking a full investigation where necessary, to identify the root causes of those problems.
After that, they'll want to see that the laboratory has taken corrective actions to address that poor performance. I’d go even further, and say they would expect the laboratory to have monitored that those actions have actually been successful and improved the performance, or the quality of their analytical results.
Have any of the international bodies that you play a part in released any new legislation or guidance that our readers should be aware of?
I’d always point anyone wishing to gain appreciation of proficiency testing to the Eurachem guide: Selection, Use and Interpretation of Proficiency Testing Schemes. The Third Issue was published in 2021 and can be freely downloaded from the Eurachem website. On the same website, there’s also a series of leaflets that have recently been updated. And finally, the competency standard for PT providers – ISO/IEC 17043 – is currently under revision. I’ve been heavily involved in that work, and the revised standard is likely to be published in the spring of 2023.