World-wide moves towards improved quality control, unified standards of practice and formal accreditation will mean that only those clinical laboratories with an effective Quality Assurance (QA) programme are likely to be successful in an increasingly competitive market.  The object of QA is to ensure that the right result is provided on the right specimen at the right time, and interpreted according to the right reference data.  This process requires a combination of Internal Quality Control (IQC) of the everyday analytical process and participation in External Quality Assessment (EQA) programmes, where overall accuracy and comparability of results between centres may be determined.
Since 1969 the United Kingdom National External Quality Assessment Service (UK NEQAS) has been providing a comprehensive world-wide service that enables laboratories to fulfil quality goals and facilitate optimal patient care.  UK NEQAS now comprises a network of 390 schemes operating from 26 centres based at major hospitals, research institutions and universities throughout theUK.  The services cover qualitative and interpretative investigations in reproductive science, cellular pathology, clinical chemistry, genetics, haematology, immunology and microbiology.  Each is directed by experts in their field, with support and advice from Steering Committees.

Participating laboratories are identified by a code known only to the Scheme Organiser/Director and key UK NEQAS personnel.  Specimens are distributed at a regular frequency, and aim to cover the range likely to be encountered in clinical practice.  Participants receive independent, objective and impartial reports on their performance, enabling them to identify weakness and take appropriate action.

The primary aim of UK NEQAS is educational.  UK participants with persistent problems are offered advice and assistance from the scheme Organiser/Director and/or the relevant National Quality Assurance Advisory Panel. Schemes have close links with the professions, ensuring that their services are determined by clinical need.

Participation is on a voluntary, confidential basis and is open to all public and private sector clinical laboratories, as well as pharmaceutical and veterinary laboratories.  Manufacturers of diagnostic instruments and reagents also benefit from participation, both in the development phase of new products and during monitoring of those already on the market.  Most schemes offer participation to overseas laboratories; indeed over 8,000 from over 140 countries regularly participate.  Registration is usually for a minimum of one year with subscriptions payable in advance.  Charges are derived from full costs and overheads on a strict not-for-profit basis.

All UK NEQAS designated schemes are members of the UK NEQAS Consortium – a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee and a UK Registered Charity. This organisation, served by its elected Executive Committee and the UK NEQAS Office, fulfils central co-ordinating and administrative functions.
EQA schemes are awarded the UK NEQAS designation and become UK NEQAS members through compliance with the UK NEQAS Code of Practice.  This Code lays down requirements for scheme design and management, and sets out the obligations and responsibilities of Organisers/Directors.  It ensures that UK NEQAS schemes conform to high standards of professionalism, impartiality, clinical relevance and strict financial accountability across all disciplines and specialities, so that all concerned with the quality of laboratory investigations may have confidence in the service provided.