The Q&A of QA: how the NML uses Quality Assurance to produce quality research

Running a world-class research facility involves a lot of precision and expertise. Have you ever wondered how facilities like the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) produce trusted work? The answer lies in part with the brilliant scientists who conduct the research, but also relies on a team of expert support staff who maintain a workplace with strict technical measures at every turn to ensure a quality outcome.

These technical measures are compiled into a set of standardized processes called a quality management system, which are guidelines that cover every process, from hiring new scientists to ensuring confidence in testing. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) establishes these guidelines, and only accredits facilities that meet the international gold standard, like the NML.

ISO certification assures labs like the NML will get accurate results because it verifies a high level of competency and troubleshooting capability in their processes. If there is ever an issue with a procedure in the quality management system, the Quality Office will work with the lab to see where the issue occurred. The two teams will work together to solve the problem, and come up with an action plan to prevent it from happening again in the future.

What is Standardization?

The NML uses quality management systems to constantly evaluate and improve its organization. To meet the ISO’s standards, the NML undergoes a rigorous auditing process by both internal and external experts. Sharla Beddome is one of NML’s in-house ISO experts who helps keep the facility functioning like a well-oiled quality machine.

“The Quality Office handles standardization across most areas in the NML,” says Ms. Beddome. “Standardization is the adherence to ISO standards, and is an important part of a quality system. There are processes for almost everything and our role is to guide everyone in following them, so that each time we test the skill of staff, or receive virus samples, we are confident that everything is performing to the gold standard and we are providing consistent and reliable results.”

However, it does not end there. The Quality Office helps the NML staff review its processes so that if there is ever an issue, they can figure out the cause, and ensure stronger results the next time.

Why does NML need Quality Management Systems?

“Quality assurance (QA) is essential to the NML because it inspires confidence,” says Ms. Beddome. “When the virus that causes COVID-19 began appearing around the world, we knew that it was only a matter of time before our lab would be called upon to diagnose the disease. We were confident that our flu team could handle this emerging respiratory virus because of QA program evaluations, and their proven track record responding to outbreaks such as SARS, H1N1, and MERS.”

At the end of the day, the Quality Office helps ensure that each scientist and the rest of the staff at the NML are supported. Scientific research can seem exciting, Quality Assurance, rooted in documentation and procedures, can be a little tamer.

Ms. Beddome admits, “Quality Assurance is not a glamorous line of work. It requires a lot of organization and diligence. There is paperwork for everything. The work can get tedious, at times, but this is how we make sure that we have done everything correctly and our lab tests are reliable.”