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A Common Sense Approach to the
Purchase of Laboratory Equipment

Barry T. Mitzner, D.V.M  

The act of acquiring laboratory equipment doesn’t have to become a gut wrenching nightmare where not only salespeople get pitted against each other but also doctors and technicians. If the process is approached in a systematic, stepwise manner beginning with a careful assessment of the true needs of the practice, you will find that much of the unpleasant name-calling and finger pointing that often surrounds such purchases can be avoided. Furthermore, by making the project a collective one, seldom if ever will you have to resort to coaxing a clinician or staff member to make use of the new equipment.  

Create a Wish List

The first step in the decision-making process is to come up with a “wish list” of features and diagnostic capabilities you hope to acquire along with the new piece of equipment. Decide exactly what you want from your impending purchase in terms of accuracy, speed, ease of use, service availability, footprint, etc. but don’t be surprised if you find out later that every item on your wish list can’t be met with a single purchase.

Now it’s time to start gathering information. Keep your burden to a minimum, however, by only requesting spec sheets for those products which encompass the majority of points on your wish list. If you need more information than what’s published on the spec sheets, don’t hesitate to ask prospective suppliers about the possibility of loaning you an operator’s manual to review for a few days. If you do this, be sure to review the sections of the manual which deal with Intended Use and Limitations of the System. Within the Intended Use section, you’re liable to find out that both the salesman and the descriptive literature may have overstated the system’s utility. Likewise, be sure to review the Limitations section for items which may have been left out of the descriptive literature or the sales representative’s pitch.

Narrow Your Choices

Once you’ve established a short list of laboratory products which offer your most desired features, it’s time to sit down with a calculator and do some more homework. The first issue to be addressed is “Cost in Use”.

The cost in use for any analyzer is made up of the lease or monthly cost, plus service or maintenance agreements, reagent and consumables costs per cycle and 10% of that cost for “waste”. Don’t forget to add in any calibration and QC costs including the reagents and consumables required to run them. If you add up all of these figures and divide by the anticipated number of actual patient tests you’ll

run each month, you’ll arrive at the true cost per test also known as the cost in use or the cost per billable result. Remember that while the Initial capital outlay requirement is always of importance, realize that sometimes in our haste to take advantage of an equipment “special” or sale, the concept of cost in use is sometimes forgotten. Ease of operation can be determined by carefully reviewing the operator’s manual with an eye towards the expertise of your particular staff. This is also a good issue to discuss with other practices currently using the product in question.

Assessing Instrument Performance

When we speak of instrument performance, we include comments regarding the accuracy and precision of the instrument as well as overall reliability. The best information one can hope to find in terms of assessing accuracy and precision would be to seek objective articles written about the product in refereed journals. Performance data from the manufacturer can also be useful but only if the manufacturer will supply you with the raw data from which the conclusions and performance claims have been derived.

If you’re offered the opportunity to trial the product, review the quality control results regularly and be sure to run both normal and abnormal levels. Assay of pooled serum specimens is also an excellent means for checking performance. Proficiency tests in the form of unknown specimen challenges can be extremely useful for assessing the prospective system’s performance against other similar products.

You might also want to consult with colleagues regarding their particular performance experience with a given product. If the colleague is not monitoring his system with QC on a regular basis, however, any comments regarding accuracy and precision should be considered carefully. Furthermore, when consulting with colleagues on matters such as whether or not to purchase a particular piece of expensive equipment, one must be realize that the “halo effect” may come into play. What this means is that colleagues who may have made a mistake with regard to the purchase of a particular piece equipment may not be entirely willing to admit it!

Conclusion

Once you’ve arrived at a reasonable assessment of instrument performance, cost in use, and ease of operation and you’ve addressed any other considerations such as size, service, technical support, etc., consider yourself to be an informed consumer. Now, go out and strike that deal!

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