Handle FDA inspector egos and incompetencies during an audit of your facility–including requests for exempt quality system records.
This topic was submitted to my suggestion box from a colleague in Australia. Originally I posted this as an announcement for my LinkedIn Group, but the post was limited to ISO certification body auditors and excluded FDA inspectors. The basic approach is the same, but there are some important nuances regarding how to handle FDA inspector incompetencies and ego that I am including in this article.
Handle FDA Inspector Distrust
In general anyone that works for the FDA is genuinely concerned about public health and welfare. They also have a very low tolerance for unethical behavior. This has not always been the case at the FDA and the agency has fought hard over the past twenty years to eliminate anyone from their ranks that is not ethical. Therefore, if an FDA inspector thinks that you have something to hide the best approach to handle FDA inspector concerns is to give them anything they ask for–and quickly.
Unlike ISO auditors, FDA inspectors are not allowed to review three types of records:
- Management Review Meeting Minutes
- Internal Audit Reports
- Supplier Audit Reports
The FDA can learn almost everything they want to know by reviewing CAPAs that resulted from Management Reviews, internal audits and supplier audits. However, some FDA inspectors will still ask to see records that are part of the quality system record exceptions (i.e., 21 CFR 820.180c). Some quality system managers design cover sheets for these three records to specifically show FDA inspectors only the information that they are entitled to. If I am faced with this situation, I handle FDA inspector requests for restricted quality system records in the following way.
“Here is a copy of the quality system record you requested. This is one of the records that is exempt from the requirements in 21 CFR 820.180. However, we have nothing to hide. Therefore, you can take as many notes as you like about the content of this record, but you may not take a copy of the record with you.”
The above approach is intended to convince an FDA inspector that you have nothing to hide, but it also requires that you review and edit your records prior to approval and archiving to make sure that statements made in the records are appropriate–regardless of the audience reading the record.
Handle FDA Inspector and auditor personality
100% of auditors are a little weird (yep, takes one to know one). You travel for a living and tell people what’s wrong with their quality system. If you don’t start out drinking scotch, you probably will eventually. However, a little patience, understanding and over communication helps. For example, provide directions (that are accurate). Recommend a hotel (middle of the road, not the Ritz or a flea bag). Tell them about the corporate discount. Ask them in advance if they have food allergies (I’m gluten-free, and not by choice), and then try to remember not to serve only the things they are allergic to (yes, Panera Bread is a crappy choice but a gluten-free pizza is heaven). If Uber makes sense recommend it, because nobody wants to negotiate with Payless Rent-A-Car at 11:59pm.
FDA inspectors are in the same situation as auditors with regard to being travel weary. However, FDA inspectors will probably not take your recommendation for a hotel. Instead they will follow FDA guidelines and stay at a hotel chain where they prefer to accumulate membership points and they can get a government employee discount. In addition, FDA inspectors will not eat at your facility. It seems as though a few companies entertained FDA inspectors at clubs and fancy restaurants in the past. In order to eliminate any possible perception of unethical behavior, FDA inspectors are now instructed to leave your facility for lunch and return to complete the day. They probably won’t even accept a cup of coffee unless you place a carafe on the table for everyone to drink. You can also count on the FDA inspectors driving a rental car if they do not live locally.
Handle FDA Inspector and Auditor Ego
Everyone has an ego. Auditors typically have a big one, and a few FDA inspectors do too. I’m not shy, I’m smart and I love a good debate. If I’m you’re auditor, you’re lucky because I’ll admit when I’m wrong or make a mistake. Most auditors will not admit mistakes. In fact, the stronger they argue a point the more likely that they are insecure on the topic or that they have a personal preference that is a result of a bad experience. Unfortunately, FDA inspectors seem to be even more likely to argue a point when they know very little experience.
Don’t ask FDA inspectors and auditors to prove something is in the regulations or the standard. Instead, try reading Habit 5 by Covey (7 Habits of Highly Effective People). You need to be an empathic listener. The FDA inspector or auditor doesn’t hate you. They might even be trying to help you. They also might be wrong, but try restating what the person is saying in your own words and try explaining why it’s important. This shows them that you were listening, you understand what they said and you understand how they feel about the issue. Pause. Then tell them how you were trying to address this issue.
One of the areas where the above approach is especially important is when and FDA inspector is reviewing complaint records and medical device reports (MDRs). You want to convince the FDA inspector that you are doing everything you can do to investigate the complaint or adverse event and you want to prevent recurrence. Remember that someone was hurt by your device or misuse of your device, and FDA inspectors take public safety very seriously. You will not be able to handle an FDA inspector that believes you are doing less than you could be.
Handle FDA Inspector and Auditor Incompetencies
FDA inspectors rarely have industry experience, but they know the regulations. Therefore, arguing the regulations with an FDA inspector is a huge mistake. The only frame of reference for “industry best practice” is what the FDA inspector has seen at other device manufacturers they audit. Therefore, it is very import to know how experienced your FDA inspector is. If they don’t have a lot of experience they will be defensive and you might need to “educate” them.
During ISO audits you have less time to retrain your auditor. Don’t even try. I do this for a living and we’re a stubborn bunch of orifices. Instead, try the empathic listening first. 99% of the time one or both of you is not communicating clearly. Either they can’t find what they are looking for, or they misunderstood what you were telling them. It could be a difference of interpretation, but it’s probably not. If it is, then say “We were interpreting that requirement as…”. Say this once. If they argue, let it drop for now.
Resolution of 483 Observations and Audit Findings
You shouldn’t just take incorrect findings lying down. Do your homework. Send me an email. Get help. If you’re right, then contest it at the closing meeting in a factual and persuasive way. If the auditor holds their ground, ask what the policy is for resolving disputes. This is supposed to be covered as part of the closing meeting of every audit. If your auditor is just lazy, sloppy and incompetent–request a new auditor. You might even disagree in writing, address the finding anyway and then request the new auditor. That shows the management of the certification body that you’re not lazy, sloppy or incompetent.
FDA inspection 483 observations are a little different. If you and the inspector disagree you should state this in the closing meeting when they give you the 483 observation, and you should be clear that you disagree prior to end of the inspection when they start preparing FDA Form 483. Once a 483 observation is issued, however, your only recourse is to persuade the district office that the 483 observation is undeserved. The FDA district office will have copies of all your procedures and records and a copy of the FDA inspector’s notes. Be careful with complaints to the district office though. FDA inspectors are far more likely to retaliate than ISO auditors.
If you make a habit of disputing everything, your auditor or FDA inspector will come prepared for war. You also will have little credibility with the managers at the certification body or the FDA district office. Dispute only things that are justified and provide a written, factual justification that is devoid of all emotion.
Responding to FDA 483 Observations
If you do receive FDA 483 observations, it is important that you respond with well-conceived corrective action plans. If you need help with responding to an FDA 483 inspection observation, you might be interested in my webinar on this topic.