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What is Proficiency Testing?

The quality of your analytical measurements and your laboratory’s technical competence can be enhanced if you participate in testing schemes satisfactory with a number of laboratories simultaneously.  Such a scheme is known as proficiency testing (PT) scheme.

The primary aim of PT is to allow laboratories to monitor and optimize the quality of their routine analytical measurements.

A PT scheme is usually organized by an independent body, which can be a national standard body, a learned professional organization or even a business enterprise.  Basically, in chemical analysis, aliquots from homogeneous and stable test materials are distributed to a number of laboratories for analysis to be carried out at a stated window of time. Each participant is given an unique identification code.

After the participants have analyzed the samples using either a test method of their choice or a stated standard method, the scheme organizer will carry out statistical analysis of all the data submitted and provide a performance report, detailing each participant’s statistical ‘score’ that allows them to judge their performance in that particular round of testing.

In other words, the participating laboratory can gain information on how their measurements compare with those of others, how their own measurements improve or deteriorate with time, and how their own measurements compare with an external quality standard.

There are a number of different scoring systems used in PT programs; the majority involve comparing the difference between the participant’s result (x) with a target or assigned value (xa) with a quality target, which is usually a standard deviation for proficiency assessment, denoted by xp.  Each scoring system has acceptability criteria to allow participants to evaluate their performance.

Generally we do expect some divergent results to arise even between experienced, well equipped and well-staffed laboratories. If so, this PT scheme helps to highlight such alarming differences, and to suggest to these laboratories look into their own analytical process in order to improve the quality of their test results.  Hopefully a better comparison is achieved in the next round of the PT testing.

Amusingly, there are reports that some participating laboratories have been caught to have colluded in reporting their test results to the scheme organizer, particularly when the PT scheme does not involve a large number of laboratories and some of these laboratory operators are known to each other, such as being subsidiary laboratories of an organization group.  Such collusion act is undesirable as it defeats the noble purpose of carrying out the PT scheme and renders the outcome of this round of PT testing meaningless.

A simple explanation to this incident is that these laboratories are not confident of their own testing and need to compare results of others before submitting the results to the organizer. However, the outcome of a statistical graph may show a bunch of results grouped at one corner when these results are questionable, meaning they are significantly different from the assigned value of the test material analyzed.

Of late, some scheme organizers try to overcome this malpractice by preparing and sending out at least two labelled test samples with close but significantly different analyte concentrations (not duplicates) to the participants. The originality of these samples is only known to the organizer.

Actually we must not treat PT samples with extra care and attention, but run the PT samples like any other routine samples.  It is quite common to see that a participant would repeat the analysis as many times as possible until no more sample left for future reference!

A good source of reference on statistical techniques applicable to a PT scheme is ISO 13528:2015  Statistical methods for use in proficiency testing by interlaboratory comparison

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