Tuesday, August 2, 2016

FDA Site Inspections: 5 Tips for Success

Anx·i·ety (noun)
The state of uneasiness caused by apprehension of possible misfortune.

Yep.  That’s the word that comes to mind whenever anyone mentions FDA inspections.

But anxiety often stems from a lack of control, and in a regulatory inspection, you have more control than you might think.  There are many steps you can take -- before, during, and even after an inspection is over -- that can give you a fair degree of control over the outcome.   Here, Polaris auditors Lauren Kelley and Michele Commins share some of those steps with you.

Pre-inspection Preparation
For-cause inspections may be unannounced, but routine FDA inspections of submission data are scheduled in advance*.  That means most inspections are not pop quizzes; they’re final exams.
Remember how happy you were when a teacher gave you access to a prior year’s exam to study from?  You knew the type of questions that would be asked.  You knew how to prepare.

CPGM 7348.811
So this is the first tip we’d like to share.  FDA has, indeed, given you a copy of their exam in advance, in the form of its Compliance Program Guidance Manual, CPGM 7348.811.  This is the document all FDA field investigators use to conduct inspections at clinical sites.  It outlines in great detail what documents investigators will review, what dates they’re going to verify, what processes they’ll evaluate, what data they’ll collect, and what records they’re going to compare.  Despite its rather uninspired title, this is your copy of the final exam.

You know cramming is a risky strategy, so the earlier you get familiar with the CPGM the better.  Inspection readiness is a state of preparedness more than it is a laundry list of activities; it takes some time to get there.

When the Inspector’s in the House
According to the CPGM, one of the first pieces of information the FDA investigator will obtain is a list of all of the studies performed by the clinical investigator, including protocol number, sponsor, and study dates.  So even though FDA has scheduled its inspection with you, and has told you what study the investigator is coming to inspect, any study is fair game.  An FDA investigator can look at any document she wants, or talk to any staff member he chooses, whether related to the “assigned” study or not.

Clean Workspace FDA Investigator
Most of your preparation will have been study-specific; questions about other studies will catch your staff off-guard, and a review of records for other studies may find them less than inspection-ready.  So here’s our second tip.   Avoid anything that might pique the investigator’s curiosity about a study that is not the original subject of the inspection.  Make sure the room you reserve as your investigator’s “home base” is free of any documents, reports, notes, phone lists, and post-its.  Make sure you tidy up offices, workspaces, and facilities site-wide, and keep extraneous chatter in check.

After the Visit
If your FDA inspection resulted in zero observations, then stop reading, thank your awesome staff members, and go celebrate.  If, however, you did receive a Form FDA 483, it’s probably not the end of the world, but you do have some work to do.  Our third tip is this:  remember that the sponsor/CRO is your ally here.  They have as much invested in FDA’s assessment of your study data as you do, and they have the regulatory, QA, even legal resources that you might not.   You’re not required to formally respond to 483s, but if you do, you’re likely to receive a more favorable Establishment Inspection Report (EIR) in the end.  Let your sponsor/CRO help you with your response.

Tips Do Not a Plan Make
Tips are helpful, but you’ll need more than that to ensure a successful FDA site inspection.  You need an inspection readiness plan -- a plan that you document and keep current.  All site staff members need to train on the inspection procedures and the individual roles they will play.  (Fourth tip: don’t forget to train your temporary employees; an office temp working at the receptionist desk could be the first person your FDA investigator speaks with.)

A Last Thought
Inspections are stress-inducing events, and nervous people make mistakes.  Investigators know this, and expertly exercise the “pregnant pause,” knowing how difficult it is for people to withstand an excruciating silence without volunteering unsolicited information.

So one last tip:  conduct a mock inspection before the FDA comes to visit.  It will stress test your procedures and identify improvements you need to implement.  A thorough mock inspection will give staff members an opportunity to rehearse their roles and interview techniques so they can execute your plan and speak to the FDA investigator with confidence.

* For-cause inspections are also known as Investigator-oriented, and routine inspections are also known as study-oriented.

 A version of this article originally appeared in InSite, the Journal of the Society for Clinical Research Sites


  1. Hi Laurie,
    Excellent advises. Congrats.
    One question regarding tip #2; what would a FDA investigator think if only the study-related personnel was present the day of the inspection, and the rest of them were absent for "unexpected" reasons?
    Kind Regards

    1. Hi Jori,

      You pose an interesting question! Perhaps early in the inspection it might not be noticed that personnel associated with other studies are not present; however, in the course of a multi-day/week inspection, it would certainly raise some concerns if the personnel were never available should the inspector wish to question them about their studies. I personally don't have any experience with this situation. Have you seen this situation? If so, what happened?

      Lauren Kelley,CCRP
      Associate Director, GCP Compliance
      Polaris Compliance Consultants, Inc.