Meet Mr PORTAL - interview with Rick Loftus, telling all on the past, present and future of the AXIO reporting platform PORTAL
Richard Loftus is Head of Data Management & Reporting for LGC AXIO Proficiency Testing. Rick is based in Stockport, Cheshire, and lives with fiancé, Rachael, and their two children: Amelia, five, and Molly, two. When Rick isn’t working on enhancements to PORTAL, he is enjoying a mix of family time, all genres of music , sports, technology and seeking out self-learning opportunities. He joins us to explain his professional journey, the evolution of the AXIO reporting platform PORTAL, and exciting new developments that enhance customer experience.
Welcome Rick, can you start by telling us about your professional journey into the world of proficiency testing (PT)?
I started my career as an IT engineer, so I spent over 10 years working to support IT infrastructure, the IT team, and assisting with hardware issues. In 2003, I joined AQUACHECK as an IT Officer, prior to their acquisition by LGC. Initially, my role was to provide IT support for their internal team, manage the IT infrastructure, and provide support for the PT reporting system called ‘IDRIS’ that was in place at the time.
It’s funny thinking back that one of my first jobs was to send out all the schedules for the next year to our lab network on individual floppy disks – how times have changed! It’s also strange to think that when I began, we were on round 180 of the AQUACHECK scheme, now we’re on round 639, so I’ve been involved in proficiency testing for 20 years this March. When I first joined, we were such a small team that it was a very hands-on approach, so if we needed additional support in packing, I’d pack boxes, and as my role evolved to Technical Support Coordinator I was involved in reviewing reports and elements of sample preparation. We’ve evolved past that now, as has my role. I progressed through to System Support Manger and finally the position I hold now, but the experience I’ve had over the years has enabled me to gain tremendous knowledge across the business – which is fundamental to the role I play today.
As the AXIO business has evolved over the years, our systems have needed to evolve as well and I’ve supported the transition to new platforms moving from IDRIS to ADARS 1 & 2, and latterly the ERS system. By the time we became more integrated with LGC, we had three different systems in place. In 2009, we amalgamated the best bits of all of them and created our own in-house digital platform PORTAL, which was then re-platformed onto a new technology stack in 2019 to better serve laboratory requirements and deliver a scalable, resilient platform which enables us grow alongside our expanding portfolio of products and customer base.
That was your journey so far. Can you tell us more about what you do now?
As the Head of Data Management and Reporting for LGC AXIO Proficiency Testing, I have a multifaceted role. Firstly, I am proud to lead our amazing reporting team, who are responsible for administering, coordinating, and producing our PT reports. I am responsible for data quality and integrity throughout our digital platform, and I also fulfill the role of product owner, working alongside our digital development team daily.
Ultimately, I have two stakeholders: our global laboratory network, and our internal team. Therefore, I need to understand the needs of our customers and of our business, and how our software can not only support but add value to those needs. To do this successfully, communication is key. So, that involves speaking to customers, enabling opportunities for them to provide feedback, as well as communicating with our cross-functional teams in-house. I am lucky to have an agile team who work with me to make sure that we are working on the right items at the right time, to deliver a best-in-class service to our customers.
How would you explain PORTAL to someone who has never heard of it before?
PORTAL is the proprietary reporting system for LGC AXIO. It’s completely in-house developed, with a dedicated team supporting its development and focused on delivering value to our customers.
Primarily it allows our participants to return PT testing results and then access their reports, which in turn allows them to analyse their laboratory's performance. PORTAL has many tools available, which allows participants to monitor their performance at any time, meaning that they can not only review their performance for a single PT round, but also put the result into context of their entire participation with us – which for many is over 10 years’ worth of data. They can do that across samples, analytes, methods or by analysts. This can aid root cause analysis on immediate areas of concern but can also aid in monitoring changes in performance. If issues have arisen, PORTAL also provides them with a tool that can be used in conjunction with repeat samples to see whether corrective actions have had the right effect, notably, the performance score calculator.
How does PORTAL support the accreditation journey?
AXIO is accredited to ISO/IEC 17043, which specifies general requirements for the competence of proficiency testing providers. So, we develop PORTAL in accordance with the guidance provided in this standard. We also follow the recommendations outlined in ISO 13528 with regards to the statistical methods used for the analysis and interpretation of PT data.
PT is a requirement for accreditation to ISO/IEC 17025 and ISO 15189. PORTAL can support participants through their accreditation journey by enabling them to demonstrate that they are monitoring their PT performance and taking the necessary actions in the event of issues being identified. We store reports indefinitely on PORTAL and provide tools to participants that enable a laboratory to effectively demonstrate the actions that have been undertaken. PORTAL also has an easy-to-access trend analysis tool that allows them to put their results into context - and we’re currently looking at further improvements to increase the traceability of corrective actions that will have been implemented by a participant, following the failure of a PT.
So, AXIO boosts over 13,000 labs served in over 165 countries. How do you accommodate that through PORTAL?
Obviously, it's a web-based tool, so it's available 24/7, 365 days a year, to anyone participating in one of our PT Schemes. We have a multilingual website, which supports English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Bulgarian, and simplified Chinese. Therefore, customers in all those different territories that speak those languages are going to be able to access the system, and see instructions and navigational controls in their native language.
What advice would you give to laboratories on how to maximise the benefits of PORTAL?
My advice to participants is that they should familiarise themselves with the capabilities of the system at the beginning of their participation with AXIO. Taking the time to do this will really help you to maximise the benefit of PT participation. We've recently launched a digital user guide that walks new and existing participants through the end-to-end journey of accessing PORTAL, registering results, and then analysing the performance of those results through our reports and trending tools. The great thing about the user guide is that it's broken into bite-sized chunks to provide information quickly - and it’s relevant to our customers who may be a single laboratory returning one result in one round, but also relevant to large labs with multiple analysts that report results in multiple rounds each year.
How has PORTAL evolved over the last fourteen years?
I would like to think immeasurably. Over that period, we’ve seen the breadth of PT schemes that we offer expand, technology change and the needs and wants of our participants change. It’s critical that PORTAL continues to evolve with each of these and I could give lots of examples of how it has. But ultimately, I would hope that we are continuing to make it simpler and more intuitive to use, and that the tools we provide add value to participating with us.
What tools are available via PORTAL to enable customers to analyse their performance?
We offer a range of different ways to view your data. Ultimately, we provide a main report, which is the definitive version of the PT report. It shows all the participant’s results, for any scheme, round, or sample. It provides all the data needed for a participant to compare their results with those of their peers. To protect confidentiality Lab ID numbers are used throughout.
Initially, participants will want to look at their own data, and see it in the simplest way – and that is why we also offer an individual report. It acts as a concise snapshot of your laboratory’s PT data in each round.
Finally, there is the analyte report, which provides an analyte-by-analyte view of the reported results. You can put this into context graphically with the last 12 rounds of data, which helps participants to identify if the result is a ‘one off’, or if it is a trend that has been emerging over a period of time.
We’ve also been working on tools to allow you to view your data via the browser. This provides participants with flexibility in terms of viewing and visualising that data and should make it easier to find what you are looking for without navigating through a PDF document. We have made an interactive report available to all participants, so I’d encourage you to look at this if you haven’t already. It’s certainly where I see PORTAL evolving, where labs have increased data visualisation, more dashboards, and increased ability to drill down to the detail. We’re committed to improving and developing that further, and I'm sure over the course of this year that's something that participants will see.
For those responsible for a network of laboratories, we also have group reporting capabilities and dashboards that allow you to have oversight of all your laboratories, so please speak to our team if this is of interest to you.
OK, what's hot off the press and what's next for PORTAL?
A key focus area over the current calendar year is enhancing the customer experience. One of the key ‘AXIO mission statements’ is around continuous improvement, and for the PORTAL team we live and breathe it. We’ve been working, and recently releasing, some exciting developments that we believe will really support the labs that work with us.
We’ve just released a self-serve support centre. This is accessible via a QR code, so our customers will now receive these when their samples arrive. You can scan that with a mobile phone, and through the help centre, you can find things such as sample preparation instructions, guidance on how to use PORTAL, as well as quick access to answers on FAQs. We’ll soon be releasing further upgrades to this part, such as a quick and easy to use ‘Contact Us’ form. Because it’ll be in PORTAL, we’ll have key information such as your Lab ID, and company name, so that will enable us to respond to customer questions more quickly.
We’ve just launched a new customer home page, so when you log in, rather than seeing just the PT event calendar, you get a quick access dashboard with critical information. This includes the latest five reports, the latest rounds that are open for results entry, your individual calendar, and a notifications area too.
The PORTAL team are working on extending the ability to recover your login credentials, so it should be a faster process in the event you forget critical login credentials.
We are also looking at our result entry process and our result entry interface to bring in new capability to that screen, including increased ease and accessibility in changing the analyst and number formatting - all with the aim of making the screen more intuitive and speeding up the time it takes to enter results.
Further beyond that, we're looking at improving and extending our trending tools with a lab dashboard that can be used to assess your performance over time - but without any restrictions to a specific scheme, sample, or analyte. For example, how is your laboratory performing for all PT samples containing calcium?
Finally, I said before that communication is key for me, and I would welcome feedback from participants on any of the topics I’ve discussed or anything that they would like to see as an improvement to our PORTAL reporting platform.