Given the seriousness of the work that drug and alcohol testing labs do, you’d think our industry would be heavily regulated, scrutinised and standardised. After all, the results we produce have potentially life-changing repercussions.
Lab results can determine whether an adult retains custody of their child, holds onto their job or is committed to rehab. And yet, no formal drug testing lab regulation exists. Instead, we have voluntary accreditation, which is a different thing entirely.
- Regulation constitutes a set of rules that must be followed according to an industry regulatory body
- Accreditation is a seal of approval that an organisation or laboratory receives when it fulfils specific standards, as in the case of ISO:9001 or ISO:17025
Many organisations don’t realise that while accreditation exists, the level of adherence to that accreditation varies from lab to lab.
Worse still, because they believe that all accredited labs provide the same level of accuracy, they typically choose the cheapest partner they can find. After all, if the labs are accredited, then the results should be the same across the board. In which case, why not opt for the cheapest option and save yourselves and your clients some money?
Sadly, this is not the case.
The consensus guidelines that the SoHT (Society of Hair Testing) have produced are precisely that - guidelines. And to make matters more confusing, UKAS (the United Kingdom Accreditation Service) doesn’t audit labs against those guidelines. The officiality of both UKAS accreditation and the SoHT guidelines gives the impression of reliability, but there are no hard and fast rules in terms of testing precision or sensitivity.
Cansford Labs are not the only advocates of introducing drug testing lab regulation. But opinions differ on how the rules could be drawn up and implemented. We don’t have all the answers - formal regulation will require input, cooperation and compromise from across the industry. But we have a few ideas for how to get the process underway.
1 - Reaching a consensus
There are different levels of accuracy across the industry - this is why drug testing lab regulation is so necessary. But it’s also the first hurdle to overcome.
The laboratories, UKAS and SoHT need to come together and set clear targets for sensitivity and precision. Once outlined, they should be shared, agreed upon and ratified.
In the first instance, the targets would need to be based on labs’ current levels of performance. If you took the present SoHT guidelines and said everyone has to operate in line with them, there would be labs who couldn’t match those standards. So, the first step is for laboratories to be totally transparent about their capabilities.
You might wonder why laboratories would choose to cooperate in this way. After all, aren’t laboratories in competition? The reason is simple. It comes down to trust. Randox, Motherisk, Trimega - every scandal dents the level of confidence that others have in our services. Formal regulation is a surefire way of reestablishing the trust that these scandals have caused, and will enable learning from the mistakes of the past.
2 - Regular proficiency testing
Once these standards have been agreed upon, they will become the basis for how lab performance is monitored on an ongoing basis. This could take the form of a blind sample every three months. If labs can’t meet the agreed standards, then they can’t be certified by the regulatory body.
There are several similar proficiency schemes already in place, but they’re all voluntary. To introduce more rigorous benchmarks in terms of sensitivity and reproducibility, these tests would need to be mandatory. And, ideally, they would need to be enforced and managed by a centralised government (or governing body).
This call for proficiency isn’t about putting anyone out of business or creating regulation for the sake of it. It’s about honesty and reliability. And, ultimately, our responsibility as lab testers to provide results upon which serious, life-changing decisions can be made.
3 - Allowing for the complexity of drug testing lab regulation
Lab testing is complex, and any regulation will have to account for the fact that there are variables within our control and others outside of our control. Two key stumbling blocks may be time and interpretation.
As an example: A lab receives a sample to test and produces a result of X. That result is challenged, and another lab is asked to test the same sample. However, by the time the second lab receives the sample, six weeks have passed since the first test. As a result, the second lab may well produce a different result. Do you change the interpretation of the results to account for the time that has passed?
We, as an industry, will have to find the answers to these questions collectively. There is no simple answer. But we shouldn’t let the inherent complexities involved in lab testing distract us from the comparatively simple task of defining clear and actionable targets for performance - and regularly testing whether or not the results labs provide can meet those targets.
Do you want to help us establish more rigorous drug testing lab regulation?
The sooner we can start an open dialogue around the lack of regulation in the industry, the sooner we can move forward. As Cansford has said before, the best way to begin is for the labs, UKAS and the SoHT to start an open dialogue so we can improve consistency, build trust and provide a better, more consistent service.
Are you interested in establishing more regulation in drug and alcohol lab testing? Post a comment below and let us know. And don’t forget to share this post with your peers. The more people we can get on board, the more likely we are to create a positive change in the industry.
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