How to choose the best laboratory for your microbiology analysis

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Courtesy of EMLab P&K

For indoor air quality professionals, choosing a good microbiology lab is one of the most important business decisions you can make. How do you know that the fungal data that you are receiving is accurate? Will it stand up in court? Has an educated, experienced, trained analyst actually thought about your sample and your project, understood what you were looking for, and then used their knowledge to answer the question you were asking? The answers to these questions can mean the difference between winning lawsuits and leaving you and your clients exposed. This article outlines how to choose the best microbiology lab for you — and how to get the most out of your current lab.

Most professionals want a laboratory that provides high quality analysis, good service, fast turnaround time, and reasonable prices. The first step in selecting a lab is to decide which factors are most important to you. If your business provides advice related to human health or legal contests, then I would argue that quality and reliability should probably be the most important factors.

What do I mean by 'quality'?
Well, for example, how confident are you that starch granules, which can be common in indoor environments, are not being reported as mold spores? This is just one of the common mistakes I have seen from experienced laboratories due to poor quality systems or inadequate analyst training, education or experience. A mistake like that can lead to inappropriate recommendations, unnecessary expenditures, or can cause your client to lose a lawsuit. Asking the following questions will help you identify the best laboratories:

Analysts
What fraction of the analysts have Ph.D.s or Master's Degrees in mycology, microbiology or a related field? A good lab should probably have close to half of the analysts with advanced degrees. Does every analyst have at least a Bachelor's degree in biology or microbiology?

Training
Has every analyst undergone formalized, documented training with a qualified expert?

Quality Programs
• Participation is not enough: check EMPAT results. Look for scores consistently higher than 100. If your lab doesn't publish all their results, ask yourself why.
• Are there clear, written procedures for every function in the lab and for the quality system? Are these procedures rigorously followed and enforced? The best way to find out is to quiz lab employees at random (over the phone or in person) about procedures and quality systems.
• Does the lab perform blind duplicate comparisons amongst analysts to assure consistent, reliable and provable analysis quality?

Laboratory Tour
A lab tour gives you the chance to 'kick the tires,' meet the analysts, and evaluate the overall professionalism of the lab. A reputable laboratory should always give clients the opportunity to visit. Ultimately, a lab tour is the best way to make an informed decision.

Services
How good is the service, including phone support, web references, online access to your data, or customized reports? For example, a good lab should be proactive about calling you to discuss unusual results, mislabeled samples, etc. If you request a same day rush, does the laboratory consistently deliver on time? How good is their data management and tracking? Can they quickly tell you who received the sample, who prepared it, who analyzed it, who reported it, and when? Are they able to consistently remember your preferences? Do you have someone you can call if you have a question, and does that person consistently provide you with useful answers?

Finally, before you settle on a lab, you might consider asking the advice of independent experts in the field. Ask public departments of health, recognized industry experts, or other professionals for their opinions. Choosing a good microbiology lab can mean the difference between winning lawsuits and leaving you and your clients exposed, and ultimately can save you trouble — and money.

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