Alternatives to Six Sigma


This entry continues where the entry (Six Sigma can be dangerous to your health) left off. Given the problems with six sigma, what are some solutions to estimate the quality of an assay, using hCG as an example assay.

First, when total analytical error is calculated to estimate the values in zones A-C in an error grid, one should use conservative methods such as the empirical distributions suggested by the CLSI EP21A method, and where no data are deleted. Let’s say a clinical laboratory has done this evaluation with 40 patient samples for a new and reference method and found no results in zone C for an hCG assay. What can one conclude? Although there are 0% of the values in zone C, the 95% confidence interval extends to 7.2%. This means that for every million hCG results performed, up to 72,000 results could be in zone C. This is not very comforting and these types of evaluations don’t prove much, although one knows that the 7.2% rate is unlikely (because if this rate to occurred, it would be noticed).

FMEA is an approach that will provide an answer to the quality question but in its complete form, it requires considerable effort. To complete a FMEA analysis, one has to postulate all possible reasons why a result could fall into zone C. To get an idea of what is involved, take two possible failure modes, HAMA interference and a patient sample mix-up.

HAMA interference – To estimate the likelihood of a zone C result from HAMA interference, one needs to know the level of HAMA that will cause erroneous results in the assay and the probability of such levels in the population being sampled. Contacting the manufacturer might give one the level of HAMA to watch out for – I am not familiar with data about the distribution of HAMA in patient samples. Yet, one knows HAMA interference occurs (Clinical Chemistry. 2001;47:1332-1333).  

Patient sample mix-up – There are some data for patient sample mix-ups (Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine: Vol. 130, No. 11, pp. 1662–1668). However, it seems that these cases are caught within the laboratory. One would need to determine how many cases actually are not caught within the laboratory. One could then model the likelihood of a zone C result by sampling from the empirical distribution of hCG results that are observed on the lab to see the likelihood of a mix-up causing a zone C result.

Because there are so many existing data in a clinical laboratory, one may also have the opportunity to perform FRACAS types of analyses. That is, in addition to modeling probabilities, once could use existing data to count actual failures.

One must then continue:

  • with each other possible failure mode, calculate the probability of zone C results
  • calculate the overall probability of zone C results (from all failure modes) and determine if that risk is acceptable
    • special software is typically used to perform these calculations
  • construct a Pareto table if the overall probability of zone C results is too high and
  • propose control measures to lower the overall risk to an acceptable level
    • the control measures must of course be affordable

At this point, one can get the idea that this level of effort is out of reach for clinical laboratories since the level of expertise and work need just to estimate the likelihood of a zone C result is huge. Even if a clinical laboratory could perform this task, it makes no sense to require every clinical laboratory to do so.

One possibility is to have a standards group tackle such a task., although this too has limitations as was shown for a (universal) control measure to prevent wrong site surgery.

Another possibility is to perhaps leverage resources beyond the clinical laboratory. For example, one could insist that before treatment for trophoblastic carcinoma, an hCG result should be confirmed either by performing a reference assay or perhaps by treating the sample and rerunning it. This requires an interaction between the clinical laboratory and clinicians.

So there are no easy answers to preventing severe, low frequency failures, (that cause patient harm) but as discussed before, coming up with a sigma estimate for an hCG assay, is also not the answer. Nor is doing nothing.


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