For many years, the clinical laboratory's focus on analytical quality has resulted in an error rate of 4-5 sigma, which surpasses most other areas in healthcare. However, greater appreciation of the prevalence of errors in the pre- and post-analytical phases and their potential for patient harm has led to increasing requirements for laboratories to take greater responsibility for activities outside their immediate control. Accreditation bodies such as the Joint Commission International (JCI) and the College of American Pathologists (CAP) now require clear and effective procedures for patient/sample identification and communication of critical results. There are a variety of free on-line resources available to aid in managing the extra-analytical phase and the recent publication of quality indicators and proposed performance levels by the International Federation of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine (IFCC) working group on laboratory errors and patient safety provides particularly useful benchmarking data. Managing the extra-laboratory phase of the total testing cycle is the next challenge for laboratory medicine. By building on its existing quality management expertise, quantitative scientific background and familiarity with information technology, the clinical laboratory is well suited to play a greater role in reducing errors and improving patient safety outside the confines of the laboratory.
Keywords: Diagnostic errors; Healthcare; Laboratories; Quality assurance; Risk management; Specimen handling.