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Healthcare Strikes Around the World Challenge Pay and Poor Working Conditions

Millions of cancelled healthcare appointments and lengthy waits for care abound in UK, New Zealand, and in the US

Strikes continue on multiple continents as thousands of healthcare workers walk off the job. Doctors, medical laboratory scientists, nurses, phlebotomists and others around the world have taken to the picket lines complaining about low wages, inadequate staffing, and dangerous working conditions.

In England, junior doctors (the general equivalent of medical interns in the US) continue their uphill battle to have their complaints heard by the UK government. As a result, at hospitals and clinics throughout the United Kingdom, more than one million appointments have been cancelled due to strikes, according to the BBC.        

“The true scale of the disruption is likely to be higher—many hospitals reduce bookings on strike days to minimize last-minute cancellations,” the BBC reported. “A total of one million hospital appointments have had to be rescheduled along with more than 60,000 community and mental health appointments since December [2022], when industrial action started in the National Health Service (NHS).”

According to The Standard, “Consultants in England are to be re-balloted over the prospect of further strike action as doctors and the government remain in talks with a view to end the dispute. The British Medical Association (BMA) said that specialist, associate specialist, and specialty (SAS) doctors will also be balloted over potential strike action.”

Ujjwala Anand Mohite, DRCPath, FEBPath

“We must be prepared to take the next step and ballot for industrial action if we absolutely have to—and we will do this … if upcoming negotiations fail to achieve anything for our profession,” Ujjwala Anand Mohite, DRCPath, FEBPath (above), a histopathologist at the NHS, Dudley Group of Hospitals, and the first female Chair of the SAS committee UK, told The Guardian.

New Zealand Doctors, Clinical Laboratory Workers Strike

In September, the first-ever nationwide senior doctor strike occurred in New Zealand and was then followed by another strike of about 5,000 doctors and 100 dentists from New Zealand’s public hospitals, the World Socialist Web Site reported.

Similar to the UK, the strikes reflect mounting frustration over pay not keeping up with inflation and “decades of deteriorating conditions in the public health system,” the WSWS noted.

This follows months of strikes by the island nation’s medical laboratory workers, which are ongoing.

In “Medical Laboratory Workers Again on Strike at Large Clinical Laboratory Company Locations around New Zealand,” Dark Daily covered how medical technicians, phlebotomists, and clinical laboratory scientists in New Zealand were going on strike for fairer pay in various areas around the country. Their complaints mirror similar complaints by healthcare and clinical laboratory workers in the US.

“Our pay scales, if you compare them internationally, are not competitive. About half of our specialists come from abroad, so it’s quite important for the country’s health system to be able to attract and keep people,” Andy Davies, a lung specialist who joined the picket outside 484-bed Wellington Hospital, told the WSWS.  

“We’re not asking for the world, we’re asking for an inflationary pay rise, and we haven’t had an inflationary pay rise year-on-year, and it’s beginning to show,” he added.

“What type of health system do they want?” he continued. “Do we want one that treats all people and manages what they need, or do we want a hacked down system that does less?”

The conflicts over pay and working conditions have caused many healthcare workers in New Zealand to leave the field entirely. This has led to severe shortages of qualified workers.

“Patient waiting times—for cancer, hip replacements, cardiac problems, and many other conditions—have exploded due to understaffed and overwhelmed hospitals,” the WSWS reported.

US Healthcare Workers also Striking

The US has its share of striking healthcare workers as well. Healthcare Dive tracked 23 ongoing or anticipated strikes throughout the nation’s healthcare industry since January 1, 2023. In 2022, there were 15 strikes of healthcare workers at the nation’s hospitals and health systems.

These walkouts include doctors, nurses, pharmacy workers, imaging specialists, and thousands of frontline healthcare workers striking over dangerously low staffing levels, unsafe working conditions, and low pay.

In October, 75,000 nurses, support staff, and medical technicians from Kaiser Permanente participated in a 72-hour strike comprised of hundreds of hospitals and clinics throughout California, Washington state, Oregon, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, Reuters reported.

The three-day strike, “Marked the largest work stoppage to date in the healthcare sector,” Reuters noted. Doctors, managers, and contingency workers were employed to keep hospitals and emergency departments functioning.

“The dispute is focused on workers’ demands for better pay and measures to ease chronic staff shortages and high turnover that union officials say has undermined patient care at Kaiser,” Reuters stated.

Staffing shortages following the COVID-19 pandemic are partly to blame for current struggles, but contract staffing to fill critical positions has exacerbated the problem.

“Kaiser’s outsourcing of healthcare duties to third-party vendors and subcontractors has also emerged as a major sticking point in talks that have dragged on for six months. … The clash has put Kaiser Permanente at the forefront of growing labor unrest in the healthcare industry—and across the US economy—driven by the erosion of workers’ earning power from inflation and pandemic-related disruptions in the workforce,” Reuters noted.

Across the globe, many healthcare workers—including clinical laboratory scientists in countries like New Zealand—are feeling burnt out from working in understaffed departments for inadequate pay. Hopefully, in response to these strikes, governments and healthcare leaders can come to resolutions that bring critical medical specialists back to work.

—Kristin Althea O’Connor

Related Information:

Junior Doctors in England to Hold Strike Talks with Government

NHS Strikes: More than a Million Appointments Cancelled in England

England’s National Health Service Operates on Holiday-Level Staffing as Doctors’ Strike Escalates

New Zealand Doctors Hold Second Strike

Strike Talks Continue Between BMA and Government as Doctors Decide on Next Steps

Why Health Care Workers Are Striking

US Healthcare Workers Walk Off the Job: 22 Strikes in 2023

Tracking Healthcare Worker Strikes

Kaiser Permanente Resumes Talks with Healthcare Workers Union Week after Strike

Medical Laboratory Workers Again on Strike at Large Clinical Laboratory Company Locations around New Zealand

UK Researchers Create Conductive Thread That Can Be Woven into Clothing to Monitor Key Health Biomarkers

Meet ‘PECOTEX,’ a newly-invented cotton thread with up to 10 sensors that is washable. Its developers hope it can help doctors diagnosis disease and enable patients to monitor their health conditions

Wearable biosensors continue to be an exciting area of research and product development. The latest development in wearable biosensors comes from a team of scientists led by Imperial College London. This team created a conductive cotton thread that can be woven onto T-shirts, textiles, and face masks and used to monitor key biosignatures like heart rate, respiratory rate, and ammonia levels.

Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists should also take note that this wearable technology also can be used to diagnose and track diseases and improve the monitoring of sleep, exercise, and stress, according to an Imperial College London news release.

Should this technology make it into daily use, it might be an opportunity for clinical laboratories to collect diagnostic and health-monitoring data to add to the patient’s full record of lab test results. In turn, clinical pathologists could use that data to add value when consulting with referring physicians and their patients.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Materials Today titled, “PEDOT:PSS-modified Cotton Conductive Thread for Mass Manufacturing of Textile-Based Electrical Wearable Sensors by Computerized Embroidery.”

“Our research opens up exciting possibilities for wearable sensors in everyday clothing,” said Firat Güder, PhD, Principal Investigator and Chief Engineer at Güder Research Group at Imperial College London, in a news release. “By monitoring breathing, heart rate, and gases, they can already be seamlessly integrated, and might even be able to help diagnose and monitor treatments of disease in the future.” (Photo copyright: Wikipedia.)

Ushering in New Generation of Wearable Health Sensors

The researchers dubbed their new sensor thread PECOTEX. It’s a polystyrene sulfonate-modified cotton conductive thread that can incorporate more than 10 sensors into cloth surfaces, costs a mere 15 cents/meter (slightly over 39 inches), and is machine washable.

“PECOTEX is high-performing, strong, and adaptable to different needs,” stated Firat Güder, PhD, Principal Investigator and Chief Engineer at Güder Research Group, Imperial College London, in the press release.

“It’s readily scalable, meaning we can produce large volumes inexpensively using both domestic and industrial computerized embroidery machines,” he added.

The material is less breakable and more conductive than conventional conductive threads, which allows for more layers to be embroidered on top of each other to develop more complex sensors. The embroidered sensors retain the intrinsic values of the cloth items, such as wearability, breathability, and the feel on the skin. PECOTEX is also compatible with computerized embroidery machines used in the textile industry.

The researchers embroidered the sensors into T-shirts to track heart activity, into a face mask to monitor breathing, and into other textiles to monitor gases in the body like ammonia which could help detect issues with liver and kidney function, according to the news release.

“The flexible medium of clothing means our sensors have a wide range of applications,” said Fahad Alshabouna, a PhD candidate at Imperial College’s Department of Bioengineering and lead author of the study in the news release. “They’re also relatively easy to produce which means we could scale up manufacturing and usher in a new generation of wearables in clothing.”

Uses for PECOTEX Outside of Healthcare

The team plans on exploring new applications for PECOTEX, such as energy storage, energy harvesting, and biochemical testing for personalized medicine. They are also seeking partners for commercialization of the product.

“We demonstrated applications in monitoring cardiac activity and breathing, and sensing gases,” Fahad added. “Future potential applications include diagnosing and monitoring disease and treatment, monitoring the body during exercise, sleep, and stress, and use in batteries, heaters, and anti-static clothing.”

In addition to Imperial College London, the research was funded by the Saudi Ministry of Education, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Cytiva Life Sciences, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US Army.

Other Wearable Biometric Sensors

Dark Daily has covered the development of many wearable health sensors in past ebriefings.

In “UC San Diego Engineers Develop Microneedle Wearable Patch That Measures Glucose, Alcohol, Muscle Fatigue in Real Time,” we covered how “lab-on-the-skin” multi-tasking microneedle sensors like the one developed at the University of California San Diego’s (UCSD) Center for Wearable Sensors to track multiple biomarkers in interstitial fluid were finding their way into chronic disease monitoring and sample collecting for clinical laboratory testing.

In “Fitbit Receives FDA Approval for a Wearable Device App That Detects Atrial Fibrillation,” we reported how personal fitness technology company Fitbit had received 510(k) clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as Conformité Européenne (CE marking) in the European Union, for its Sense smartwatch electrocardiogram app that monitors wearers’ heart rhythms for atrial fibrillation (AFib).

And in “Researchers in Japan Have Developed a ‘Smart’ Diaper Equipped with a Self-powered Biosensor That Can Monitor Blood Glucose Levels in Adults,” we reported how researchers at Tokyo University of Science (TUS) had created a self-powered, glucose-testing diaper that utilizes a biofuel cell to detect the presence of urine and measure its glucose concentration.

Wearable Sensors in Personalized Healthcare

Wearable healthcare devices have enormous potential to perform monitoring for diagnostic, therapeutic, and rehabilitation purposes and support precision medicine.

Further studies and clinical trials need to occur before PECOTEX will be ready for mass consumer use. Nevertheless, it could lead to new categories of inexpensive, wearable sensors that can be integrated into everyday clothes to provide data about an individual’s health and wellbeing.

If this technology makes it to clinical use, it could provide an opportunity for clinical laboratories to collect diagnostic data for patient records and help healthcare professionals track their patients’ medical conditions. 

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Sensors Embedded into T-Shirts and Face Masks Could Monitor Biosignatures

PEDOT:PSS-modified Cotton Conductive Thread for Mass Manufacturing of Textile-based Electrical Wearable Sensors by Computerized Embroidery

Wearable Sensors Styled into T-shirts and Face Masks

Low-Cost Sensor Tracks Vital Signs and Breath to Monitor Diseases

Sensor Thread

Wearable Sensor

UC San Diego Engineers Develop Microneedle Wearable Patch That Measures Glucose, Alcohol, Muscle Fatigue in Real Time

Fitbit Receives FDA Approval for a Wearable Device App That Detects Atrial Fibrillation

Researchers in Japan Have Developed a ‘Smart’ Diaper Equipped with a Self-powered Biosensor That Can Monitor Blood Glucose Levels in Adults

Researchers Find AI Improves Breast Cancer Detection by 20%

Initial analyses also shows AI screening lowers associated radiologist image reading workload by half

Both radiologists and pathologists analyze images to make cancer diagnoses, although one works with radiological images and the other works with tissue biopsies as the source of information. Now, advances in artificial intelligence (AI) for cancer screenings means both radiologists and pathologists may soon be able to detect cancer more accurately and in significantly less time.

Pathologists may find it instructive to learn more about how use of this technology shortened the time for the radiologist to sign out the case without compromising accuracy and quality.

Led by researchers at Lund University in Sweden, the Mammography Screening with Artificial Intelligence (MASAI) trial found that using AI during high-risk breast cancer screenings improved breast cancer detection by 20% without affecting the number of false positives, according to a Lund University news release.

Even better, AI screenings reduced doctors’ workload in interpreting mammography  images by nearly 50%, the news release states. Such an improvement would also be a boon to busy pathology practices were this technology to become available for tissue biopsy screenings as well. 

The researchers published their findings in the journal The Lancet Oncology titled, “Artificial Intelligence-Supported Screen Reading versus Standard Double Reading in the Mammography Screening with Artificial Intelligence Trial (MASAI): a Clinical Safety Analysis of a Randomized, Controlled, Non-Inferiority, Single-Blinded Screening Accuracy Study.“

“The greatest potential of AI right now is that it could allow radiologists to be less burdened by the excessive amount of reading,” said breast radiologist Kristina Lång, MD, PhD, Associate Professor in Diagnostic Radiology at Lund University. Pathologists working with clinical laboratories in cancer diagnosis could benefit from similar AI advancements. (Photo copyright: Lund University.)

Can AI Save Time and Improve Diagnoses?

One motivation for conducting this study is that Sweden, like other nations, has a shortage of radiologists. Given ongoing advances in machine learning and AI, researchers launched the study to assess the accuracy of AI in diagnosing images, as well as its ability to make radiologists more productive.

The MASAI trial was the first to demonstrate the effectiveness of AI-supported screening, the Lund news release noted.

“We found that using AI results in the detection of 20% (41) more cancers compared with standard screening, without affecting false positives. A false positive in screening occurs when a woman is recalled but cleared of suspicion of cancer after workup,” said breast radiologist Kristina Lång, MD, PhD, clinical researcher and associate professor in diagnostic radiology at Lund University, and consultant at Skåne University Hospital, in the news release.  

Not only did the researchers explore the accuracy of AI-supported mammography compared with radiologists’ standard screen reading, they also looked into AI’s effect on radiologists’ screen-reading workload, the Lancet paper states.

Impetus for the research was the shortage of radiologists in Sweden and other countries. A Lancet news release noted that “there is a shortage of breast radiologists in many countries, including a shortfall of around 41 (8%) in the UK in 2020 and about 50 in Sweden, and it takes over a decade to train a radiologist capable of interpreting mammograms.”

That makes it even more challenging for providers to meet European Commission Initiatives on Breast and Colorectal Cancer (ECIBC) recommendations that two radiologists screen a woman’s mammogram, the Lancet news release pointed out.

More Breast Cancer Identified with Lower Radiologist Workload When Using AI Screening

Here are study findings, according to the Lancet paper:

  • AI-supported screening resulted in 244 cancers of 861 women recalled.
  • Standard screening found 203 screen-detected cancers among 817 women who were recalled.
  • The false positive rate of 1.5% was the same in both groups.
  • 41 (20%) more cancers were detected in the AI-enabled screening group.
  • Screen readings by radiologists in the AI-supported group totaled 46,345, as compared to 83,231 in the standard screening group.
  • Workload dropped by 44% for physicians using screen-reading with AI.

“We need to see whether these promising results hold up under other conditions—with other radiologists or other algorithms,” Lang said in the Lund news release.

“The results from our first analysis show that AI-supported screening is safe since the cancer detection rate did not decline despite a reduction in the screen-reading workload,” she added.

Is AI a Threat to Radiologists?

The use of AI in the Swedish study is an early indication that the technology is advancing in ways that may contribute to increased diagnostic accuracy for radiologists. But could AI replace human radiologists’ readings. Not anytime soon.

“These promising interim safety results should be used to inform new trials and program-based evaluations to address the pronounced radiologist shortage in many countries. But they are not enough on their own to confirm that AI is ready to be implemented in mammography screening,” Lång cautioned. “We still need to understand the implications on patients’ outcomes, especially whether combining radiologists’ expertise with AI can help detect interval cancers that are often missed by traditional screening, as well as the cost-effectiveness of the technology.”

In an Advisory Board daily briefing, breast radiologist Laura Heacock, MD, of the NYU Langone Perlmutter Cancer Center said, “If you spend a day with a radiologist, you’ll see that how an AI looks at screening a mammogram is really just a fraction of how radiologists practice medicine, even in breast imaging.

“These tools work best when paired with highly trained radiologists who make the final call on your mammogram. Think of it as a tool like a stethoscope for a cardiologist,” she added.

Whether a simple tool or an industry-changing breakthrough, pathology groups and clinical laboratories that work with oncologists can safely assume that AI advances will lead to more cancer research and diagnostic tools that enable earlier and more accurate diagnoses from tissue biopsies and better guidance on therapies for patients.   

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

How AI Improved Breast Cancer Detection by 20%

Artificial Intelligence-Supported Screen Reading versus Standard Double Reading in the Mammography Screening with Artificial Intelligence Trial (MASAI): a Clinical Safety Analysis of a Randomized, Controlled, Non-Inferiority, Single-Blinded Screening Accuracy Study

AI Can Detect Breast Cancer as Well as Radiologists, Study Finds

AI-Supported Mammography Screening is Found to be Safe

European Breast Cancer Guidelines

AI Use in Breast Cancer Screening as Good as Two Radiologists, Study Finds

COVID-19 Test Sales Fall Nearly 90% at Abbott in Q2, a Clear Marker to Clinical Laboratories That the Pandemic Has Passed

Sales of SARS-CoV-2 tests at other IVD companies, including Roche Diagnostics and Danaher’s lab businesses also report declines in COVID-19 test revenue

Clinical laboratory leaders and pathologists seeking a marker that the COVID-19 pandemic has passed may have it in the plunge in SARS-CoV-2 test revenue during the second quarter at Abbott Laboratories, Abbott Park, Illinois.

COVID-19 test sales in Q2 2023 at Abbott fell a “whopping” 89% as people try to “move on” from the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Developer of the BinaxNOW rapid COVID-19 antigen self-test, Abbott saw its COVID-19 sales revenue decline from $2.3 billion in Q2 2022 to $263 million in the quarter ending June 30, the Chicago Tribune noted. 

The decline was expected by Abbott. Nonetheless, the company will likely sell more than $1 billion in COVID-19 tests by the end of this year—business it did not have in 2019.

Abbott lowered its forecast for COVID-19 sales in 2023 to $1.3 billion, down from $1.5 billion, MedTech Dive reported.

“We decided to bring our COVID-19 number down a couple of hundred million dollars, because we’re seeing—as the public health emergency ended—a little bit of a decline in testing,” said Abbott’s Chairman and CEO Robert Ford during an earnings call transcribed by Motley Fool. “So, we’ll see how that’s going to play out in Q4 (2023), the first quarter we will see an endemic respiratory season.” Clinical laboratories that performed high numbers of SARS-CoV-2 test during the pandemic will likely experience similar declines in test volumes. [Photo copyright: Abbott Laboratories.)

Overall, Abbott Has ‘Good Recovery’

COVID-19-related diagnostics was just part of the financial report by Abbott, which also develops other clinical laboratory tests, clinical laboratory analyzers and automation, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and nutritional products such as infant formula.

Abbott said in a news release that its sales—driven by base business performance—were $10 billion in Q2.

“We have had a really, really good recovery here as the health systems are opening up, and are seeing routine testing come back,” said Abbott’s Chairman and CEO Robert Ford during the earnings call.

Here are diagnostics financial results for Q2 2023 as compared to Q2 2022, according to the news release:

  • Diagnostic sales fell to $2.3 billion from $4.2 billion.
  • Core laboratory sales were flat at $1.2 billion.
  • Molecular sales plunged to $141 million from $212 million.
  • Rapid diagnostics plummeted to $741 million from $2.7 billion.

As need for COVID-19 testing contracts, Abbott is focusing on research and development of assays that may be “missing on the menus,” Ford said during the earnings call.

“We’ve been working on expanding the menu in molecular and point-of-care. One of the most exciting assays that the team has developed for point-of-care is a rapid test for traumatic brain injury,” he added.

COVID-19 Revenue Falls at Roche, Danaher

Abbott is not the only in vitro diagnostics (IVD) manufacturer to report a recent significant decline in demand for COVID-19 products.

Another sign the major wave of the pandemic has passed is the dramatic fall in COVID-19 product revenue at Roche to 0.4 billion Swiss Francs (CHF) (US$460 million) from 3.1 billion CHF (US$3.5 billion) in the first half of 2022, according to a Roche news release.

The Basel, Switzerland company—reporting on six months of financial results—said its Roche Group base business increased 8% and Diagnostics Division base business rose 6% in 2023, as compared to the first six months last year.

Diagnostics Division sales overall fell 23% to 7 billion CHF (US$8 billion) from 9.9 billion CHF (US$11.3 billion), Roche said.

Here are more first-half of 2023 financial results at Roche as compared to the same period in 2022:

  • Core lab: 3.9 billion CHF ($US 4.4 billion), up 10% from 3.8 billion CHF (US$4.3 billion).
  • Molecular lab: 1.1 billion CHF (US$1.2 billion), down 40% from 1.9 billion CHF (US$2.1 billion).
  • Diabetes care: 723 million CHF (US$831.7 million), down 5% from 832 million CHF (US$957 million).
  • Pathology lab: 687 million CHF (US$790 million), up 12% from 652 million CHF (US$750 million).
  • Point of care: 635 million CHF (US$730.6 million), plummeted 74% from 2.6 billion CHF (US$2.9 billion).

“In the first half of 2023, sales in the base business of both of our divisions (diagnostics and pharmaceuticals) grew strongly, largely offsetting the impact of declining demand for COVID-19 products,” said Roche CEO Thomas Schinecker, PhD, in the news release.

COVID-19 test revenue also impacted financial results at Danaher Corporation, the Washington, D.C.-based parent company of Beckman Coulter Diagnostics, Cepheid, and Leica Biosystems.

Revenue was down in Q2 7.5% to $7.1 billion as compared to $7.7 billion in the same quarter last year, the company said in a news release.

COVID-19 took a toll on sales of 9% in the quarter as compared to Q2 2022, according to a Danaher earnings release presentation.

As to plans for growth, Cepheid is adding assays for Group A Streptococcal and hospital-acquired infections to the menu of the GeneXpert System which performs COVID-19 testing, said Danaher CEO Rainer Blair in remarks to analysts during an earnings call prepared by the Weekly Transcript.

COVID-19 May Linger as IVD Companies Refresh Menus

As the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, healthcare providers will continue to test patients for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

But it also appears that IVD companies are aiming to keep their instruments—which ran full tilt performing COVID-19 testing during the pandemic—of high value to clinical laboratories by developing new tests for possible inclusion on labs’ testing menus.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Abbott’s COVID-19 Test Sales Dive by Nearly 90%

Abbott Q2 Net Profit Falls as Weaker COVID-19 Test Sales Drag on Revenue

Abbott Laboratories Q2 2023 Earnings Call Transcript

Abbott Reports Second Quarter 2023 Results, Increases Outlook for Underlying Base Business

Abbott Receives FDA Clearance for First Commercially Available Lab-based Blood Test to Help Evaluate Concussion

Roche Reports Strong Growth in Both Divisions’ Base Business; Group Sales Reflect Declining Demand for COVID-19 Products

Danaher Reports Second Quarter 2023 Results

Danaher Earnings Presentation

Danaher Q2 2023 Earnings Call Transcript

Medical Laboratory Workers Again on Strike at Large Clinical Laboratory Company Locations around New Zealand

Strike may delay critical blood testing and cause postponement of many surgical procedures

Medical technicians, phlebotomists, and clinical laboratory scientists in New Zealand are once again going on strike for fairer pay in various areas around the island nation. And their complaints mirror similar complaints by healthcare and clinical laboratory workers in the US.

The latest group of New Zealand medical laboratory workers to strike are in the South Island and Wellington regions. They were scheduled to walk off the job on July 28 after a negotiated agreement was not reached between APEX, a “specialist union representing over 4,000 allied, scientific, and technical health professionals,” according to the union’s website, and Awanui Labs, one of the country’s largest hospital and clinical laboratory services providers.

Medical laboratory workers in New Zealand are among some of the poorest paid healthcare professionals in the country’s medical industry, according to New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science President Terry Taylor who told the New Zealand Doctor that some workers aren’t making a living wage. “These people worked their butts off during the pandemic, so you’d think [Awanui] would be able to come up with a decent offer for its staff,” Taylor said.

On the picket line, New Zealand phlebotomists and medical laboratory technicians express that they do not feel they are being compensated properly. “Without your blood samples, you don’t get your results, you don’t get your treatments, you don’t get admissions, your hospital appointments, your operations,” a phlebotomist told 1News. Clinical laboratory workers in the US who experienced the enormous pressure during the COVID-19 lockdowns would likely agree. (Photo copyright: Otago Daily Times.)

Phlebotomists and lab workers in an around New Zealand are demanding a pay wage to put them on par with healthcare workers in the public sector. According to The Southland Times this raise would average around 23.5%.

However, to date Awanui has only offered the medical laboratory workers a 5% pay increase. The APEX union says that is far below what is acceptable for them.

“It doesn’t even get them to parity with colleagues from the public hospitals, and with inflation the way it is at the moment, it’s effectively a wage cut. So, it looks like these strikes are continuing,” David Munroe, Apex Union Advocacy Lead, told 1News New Zealand.

Patients in these regions can expect to see delays on blood test results as medical laboratories and phlebotomy collection centers close due to the strike action.

Poorest Paid Health Professionals in New Zealand

Last year, Dark Daily reported on a similar strike of New Zealand’s 10,000 healthcare workers—including its 4,000 medical laboratory scientists and technicians—which was scheduled to take place in March.

In “Four Thousand New Zealand Medical Laboratory Scientists and Technicians Threatened to Strike over Low Pay and Poor Working Conditions,” we covered how a last-minute court injunction stopped the mass walkout just 24 hours before it was to begin because of a rise in COVID-19-related hospitalizations.

That strike was also over low pay and poor working conditions.

This year, unionized workers met with Awanui on May 23, but the company declined to make an offer to prevent the strike. A second day of bargaining was scheduled for May 24, but according to Munroe, Awanui refused to show up for negotiations. However, Vicki McKnight, an Awanui General Manager, claimed the company was willing to come to the table but that “APEX declined,” New Zealand Doctor reported.

“To date, there has only been one day of bargaining and the collective agreement has not yet expired, so we are surprised by the comments on potential industrial action after just one day of negotiations,” McKnight told New Zealand Doctor.

McKnight said the parties were unable to come to an agreement because of a significant gap between the claims the parties brought to the bargaining table.

Awanui Pays Out Dividends in the Millions

In reaction to workers taking to the picket line, Awanui Labs acknowledged the strike. The company’s Chief People Officer Emma Kelly told 1News, “We do value our people, and it’s a difficult position to be in strikes for our people, for our patients, for everyone. So, I just want to go into this situation with empathy and respect for all of those involved.”

However, one of the things the New Zealand clinical laboratory workers took particular issue with, in light of Awanui’s 5% offer, was that in the last financial year Awanui paid out $41 million in dividends to its shareholders. According to Munroe, the workers want the company to invest in them—instead of the shareholders.

“They are the business. You can’t run laboratories without scientists, technicians, and phlebotomists. They know it, and it’s about time the company knows it too,” Munroe told 1News.  

The medical laboratory workers plan to remain on the picket line until a deal is made.

Clinical laboratory managers in the US should take heed of what the New Zealand strikers are saying about low pay and poor working conditions—situations mirrored in many nations following the COVID-19 pandemic.   

—Ashley Croce

Related Information:

Blood Test Delays on the Way as Workers Prepare to Strike

Lab Workers Gearing Up for Second Full Strike

Awanui Laboratory Workers to Strike Over Pay Offer

Country’s Biggest Medical Lab Provider Facing Strike Action

‘Can’t Live on These Wages’: Lab Workers Begin Strike Action

Four Thousand New Zealand Medical Laboratory Scientists and Technicians Threatened to Strike over Low Pay and Poor Working Conditions

Global Biolabs 2023 Report Shows Most Dangerous Pathogen Testing Laboratories across the Globe

Of 27 BSL-4 labs assessed, Global Biolabs ranked only seven as having ‘good’ biosafety management

In a new report, a research firm assessed the conditions at the handful of laboratories across the world that handle the most dangerous pathogens. In the wake of the SARS-CoV-2 global pandemic, there is heightened awareness of the risks of a lab accident that might release such pathogens into the environment, putting humans at risk.

Medical laboratory scientists working in clinical laboratories worldwide understand the critical nature of biosafety laboratory (BSL) criteria. Nearly all clinical laboratories that test for infectious disease agents are biosafety level-1 and -2 (BSL-1, BSL-2).

Other high-containment laboratories (HCL) that handle deadly, highly transmissible pathogens are typically government-run or university-affiliated. HCL labs have BSL-3 and BSL-4 levels and require rigorous adherence to protocols that ensure worker safety and prevent escape of dangerous pathogens.

Thus, the new report from Global Biolabs, which is critical of biorisk management protocols at existing and planned BSL-4 laboratories—especially given the increasing construction of new HCL labs worldwide—will be of interest to medical technologists, pathologists, and clinical scientists working with highly infectious diseases.

The biosafety experts who make up the Global Biolabs research team conduct risk-assessments and “provide key policy recommendations for strengthening biorisk management in BSL-4 labs,” according to the organization’s website.

Many countries did not fare well in Global Biolabs’ analysis of their policies. “The report urges the World Health Organization to strengthen guidance and individual countries to agree to audits by outside experts to ensure that their labs meet international standards,” Science reported in “Growing Number of High-Security Pathogen Labs Around World Raises Concerns.”

“The more labs and people working with dangerous pathogens, the risks go up,” biosecurity expert Filippa Lentzos, PhD (above), Associate Professor, Science and International Security, King’s College London, told Science magazine. Lentzos was part of the team that created the Global Biolabs mapping project two years ago. Clinical laboratory managers may want to review the findings in the Global Biolabs report. (Photo copyright: King’s College London.)

Only Seven Out of 27 Countries Get ‘Good’ Overall Score

“The boom in BSL-4 lab construction appears, so far, not to have been accompanied by strengthened biorisk management oversight,” according to the Global Biolabs 2023 report from the Global Biolabs Initiative. “Additionally, most planned BSL-4 labs will be in countries with relatively low scores for governance and stability,” the report’s authors wrote.

The report included a ranking of countries by total biorisk management score, the Daily Mail noted, adding:

  • Of 27 countries analyzed, seven ranked as good (above 70%) for biorisk policies,
  • 15 scored medium (above 30%),
  • five scored below.

Those with the best biorisk management scores (maximum 48):

  • Canada scored 46 (96%),
  • US scored 42 (88%),
  • Australia and the United Kingdom each scored 40 (83%).

Notably, China “scored zero on modifying pathogen rules.” According to the Daily Mail, “China’s overall management score (33) was in the middle of the pack, 69%.”

More Labs, More Danger

The Global Biolabs Initiative was launched in 2021 by Filippa Lentzos, PhD,

Associate Professor in Science and International Security, King’s College London, and Gregory Koblentz, PhD, Associate Professor and Director Biodefense Graduate Program, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia. The organization tracks maximum containment labs worldwide, noting trends that raise biosafety and biosecurity concerns.

According to the Daily Mail, Lentzos noted “that a particular worrying aspect of the BSL-4 boom was those countries looking to open their first lab were the bottom scorers in terms of good biorisk management.

“Many of the countries building new labs, some for the first time, score poorly on biorisk management. However, there is still time to strengthen national laws and regulations on biosafety, biosecurity, and dual-use research [biological research that could cause harm] to bring them up to international standards,” the Global Biolabs researchers wrote in their report.

Global Mapping of BSL-4 Labs

There are 51 BSL-4 labs operating worldwide, and 18 are planned or under construction, according to Global BioLab’s report. Here’s where they are located:

  • Europe: 24
  • North America: 12
  • Asia: 9
  • Oceania: 4
  • Africa: 2
  • South America: 0

Also, BSL-3+ labs total 55:

  • Europe: 21
  • North America: 18
  • Asia: 10
  • South America: 3
  • Africa: 2
  • Oceania: 1

The report also noted:

  • Of the 18 BSL-4 labs under construction, 11 are planned to open in Asia.
  • About half of BSL-4 labs are “less than the size of a tennis court.”

“Eighty percent (of BSL-4 labs) are located in urban areas, which heightens concerns about accidents at these facilities,” Koblentz told the Daily Mail.

According to Science, the number of BSL-4 labs has doubled since 2013. Growth in BLS-4 labs began around the time of the 2001 anthrax attacks and picked up speed in 2003 following the SARS outbreak, University World News reported.

Biosecurity and Biosafety Analyzed

Global Biolabs’ analysis included countries’ biosecurity and biosafety scores. Just 12 out of 27 countries with BSL-4 labs scored high on biosecurity, nine scored medium, and six scored low.

A high score for biosecurity—which US and France received—reflects laws for biosecurity, a national list of dangerous pathogens, and whistleblower protection.

Out of 27 countries, 21 with BSL-4 labs scored high on biosafety. However, two countries scored medium, and four scored low. The two countries that earned the highest scores for biosafety—Canada and Australia—have physical/engineering controls, occupational health, and transportation safety, among other areas reviewed.

Opportunities for Improvement

Global Biolabs made the following recommendations in their report:

  • Nations with BSL-4 and BSL-3 labs need to have in place biorisk management systems including comprehensive laws, regulations, and institutions that require safety and security risk assessments of proposed research.
  • Strengthening of biorisk management is called for by the World Health Organization and Biological Weapons Convention.
  • Labs, of all biosafety levels, are advised to aim toward safety, security, and responsible research. 

The effort by Global BioLabs to create a public record of how each BSL-4 and BSL-3 laboratory adheres to strict standards of safety and operations demonstrates that some degree of risk exists in the operation of these labs. Whether government and world health authorities make it a priority to address known deficiencies in those labs is a question yet to be answered.  

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Global Biolabs Report 2023

Dangerous Labs Ranked, and China Scores Zero When It Comes to Safety in Handling “Risky” Experiments on World’s Most Dangerous Pathogens

Growing Number of High-Security Pathogen Labs Around World Raises Concerns

Lab Leak Most Likely Origin of COVID-19 Pandemic, Energy Department Now Says

China Rejects US Assertion that COVID-19 Originated from Lab Leak

It’s Boom Time for Biosafety Labs: Who is Keeping Tabs?

CDC: Biological Risk Assessment, General Considerations for Laboratories