Virtual lab quality audits: Are they here to stay?
The start of 2020 has been unusual to say the least. While many aspects of business have transitioned to working remotely, our laboratory testing cannot be done from our homes, but we are still being challenged to do as much as possible virtually. One such activity that surprised us with its success was virtualizing laboratory quality audits. While some new customers have chosen to delay their quality audits until they are able to travel to the laboratory site, many customers, both qualification and re-qualification audits, are getting what they need from virtual versions.
The virtual audits are conducted through a series of conference or video calls and the documentation is shared through a secure data portal. The key to the success of the process is careful planning with the auditor and staff at the lab to ensure both sides make the best use of time and the audit proceeds as smoothly as if everyone were physically together.
The primary benefit of virtual audits during the pandemic has been keeping projects on schedule. However, there are other benefits that are unrelated to these extraordinary times that we believe make virtual audits a viable option even after travel restrictions are lifted.
First, the auditor does not need to travel to the lab, saving the auditor time and reducing his/her travel costs. One recent customer who chose to conduct the audit virtually saved considerable cost and time because the auditor was based in Japan, eliminating the need to travel to the U.S. where the lab is located.
Second, the audit can be conducted over a longer period to fit with the auditor’s schedule. For example, a comprehensive audit of several projects can be conducted over multiple consecutive or non-consecutive days rather than being compressed to fit a set travel schedule.
Third, with virtual audits, it may be possible to include the perspective of more than one auditor or the customer’s entire team, which can offer a more thorough audit. And, if the audit spans a flexible period of time, there is more capacity to review areas that might have been missed or need additional supporting documents. For a traditional audit, the auditor’s travel home usually means the end of any opportunity to cover anything that was missed or forgotten.
Fourth, less travel time means auditors can be more productive. They are no longer restricted by their location to work on only one project at a time.
Fifth, the additional schedule flexibility is a benefit to our lab as well because it has allowed us to accommodate over-lapping audits in some cases.
Virtual audits are not without their challenges, however, and we are already working on ways to standardize and streamline our virtual audit processes. For example, our IT team is working on a Microsoft SharePoint site that we can use to share documents with auditors. Until now, we have been using several methods for sharing documents, such as online services, the customer’s site and a portal typically used for sending data.
In addition, we believe our virtual audits will become even more efficient if we standardize our processes across PPD® Laboratories. We are working on standard operating procedures (SOPs) that include a planning phase as well as the execution of the audit. These SOPs will ensure the best possible experience for our customers and will increase our efficiency as well.
Finally, one common activity during audits is a tour of the lab. We are currently working on tour books and video tours of the labs to fill this gap.
To date, we have conducted more than a dozen virtual audits and have been pleased with their effectiveness and value. Sometimes it takes a little shake-up to get the creative juices flowing and find new ways to get the job done!