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 , 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.”
“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.
“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.
Genomic sequencing continues to benefit patients through precision medicine clinical laboratory treatments and pharmacogenomic therapies
EDITOR’S UPDATE—Jan. 26, 2022: Since publication of this news briefing, officials from Genomics England contacted us to explain the following:
The “five million genome sequences” was an aspirational goal mentioned by then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock, MP, in an October 2, 2018, press release issued by Genomics England.
As of this date a spokesman for Genomics England confirmed to Dark Daily that, with the initial goal of 100,000 genomes now attained, the immediate goal is to sequence 500,000 genomes.
In accordance with this updated input, we have revised the original headline and information in this news briefing that follows.
What better proof of progress in whole human genome screening than the announcement that the United Kingdom’s 100,000 Genome Project has not only achieved that milestone, but will now increase the goal to 500,000 whole human genomes? This should be welcome news to clinical laboratory managers, as it means their labs will be positioned as the first-line provider of genetic data in support of clinical care.
Many clinical pathologists here in the United States are aware of the 100,000 Genome Project, established by the National Health Service (NHS) in England (UK) in 2012. Genomics England’s new goal to sequence 500,000 whole human genomes is to pioneer a “lasting legacy for patients by introducing genomic sequencing into the wider healthcare system,” according to Technology Networks.
The importance of personalized medicine and of the power of precise, accurate diagnoses cannot be understated. This announcement by Genomics England will be of interest to diagnosticians worldwide, especially doctors who diagnose and treat patients with chronic and life-threatening diseases.
Building a Vast Genomics Infrastructure
Genetic sequencing launched the era of precision medicine in healthcare. Through genomics, drug therapies and personalized treatments were developed that improved outcomes for all patients, especially those suffering with cancer and other chronic diseases. And so far, the role of genomics in healthcare has only been expanding, as Dark Daily covered in numerous ebriefings.
Genomics England, which is wholly owned by the Department of Health and Social Care in the United Kingdom, was formed in 2012 with the goal of sequencing 100,000 whole genomes of patients enrolled in the UK National Health Service. That goal was met in 2018, and now the NHS aspires to sequence 500,000 genomes.
Genomics England’s initial goals included:
To create an ethical program based on consent,
To set up a genomic medicine service within the NHS to benefit patients,
To make new discoveries and gain insights into the use of genomics, and
To begin the development of a UK genomics industry.
To gain the greatest benefit from whole genome sequencing (WGS), a substantial amount of data infrastructure must exist. “The amount of data generated by WGS is quite large and you really need a system that can process the data well to achieve that vision,” said Richard Scott, MD, PhD, Chief Medical Officer at Genomics England.
In early 2020, Weka, developer of the WekaFS, a fully parallel and distributed file system, announced that it would be working with Genomics England on managing the enormous amount of genomic data. When Genomics England reached 100,000 sequenced genomes, it had already gathered 21 petabytes of data. The organization expects to have 140 petabytes by 2023, notes a Weka case study.
Putting Genomics England’s WGS Project into Action
WGS has significantly impacted the diagnosis of rare diseases. For example, Genomics England has contributed to projects that look at tuberculosis genomes to understand why the disease is sometimes resistant to certain medications. Genomic sequencing also played an enormous role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scott notes that COVID-19 provides an example of how sequencing can be used to deliver care. “We can see genomic influences on the risk of needing critical care in COVID-19 patients and in how their immune system is behaving. Looking at this data alongside other omics information, such as the expression of different protein levels, helps us to understand the disease process better,” he said.
What’s Next for Genomics Sequencing?
As the research continues and scientists begin to better understand the information revealed by sequencing, other areas of scientific study like proteomics and metabolomics are becoming more important.
“There is real potential for using multiple strands of data alongside each other, both for discovery—helping us to understand new things about diseases and how [they] affect the body—but also in terms of live healthcare,” Scott said.
Along with expanding the target of Genomics England to 500,000 genomes sequenced, the UK has published a National Genomic Strategy named Genome UK. This plan describes how the research into genomics will be used to benefit patients. “Our vision is to create the most advanced genomic healthcare ecosystem in the world, where government, the NHS, research and technology communities work together to embed the latest advances in patient care,” according to the Genome UK website.
Clinical laboratories professionals with an understanding of diagnostics will recognize WGS’ impact on the healthcare industry. By following genomic sequencing initiatives, such as those coming from Genomics England, pathologists can keep their labs ready to take advantage of new discoveries and insights that will improve outcomes for patients.
Medical laboratory company’s patients in Southwest England previously had tested positive for COVID-19 ona Lateral Flow Device
If providing accurate test results is key to maintaining trust with healthcare consumers, a private COVID-19 testing laboratory in the United Kingdom (UK) may have permanently damaged its reputation after reporting an estimated 43,000 false negative COVID-19 RT-PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test results over a five-week span between September 8, 2021, and October 12, 2021.
For now, Immensa Health Clinic Ltd., a subsidiary of DNA testing company Dante Labs, had its testing operations suspended on October 15 while the UK Health Security Agency (UKSA) investigates the cause of false negative PCR test results from the company’s lab in Wolverhampton, England. The test results went out to people who previously had tested positive for COVID-19 on a lateral flow device (LFD).
“We have recently seen a rising number of positive LFD results subsequently testing negative on PCR. As a result of our investigation, we are working with NHS Test and Trace and the company to determine the laboratory technical issues which have led to inaccurate PCR results being issued to people. We have immediately suspended testing at this laboratory while we continue the investigation,” said Will Welfare, MBChB, Public Health Incident Director, UK Health Security Agency, in a UKHSA statement.
“There is no evidence of any faults with LFD or PCR test kits themselves and the public should remain confident in using them and in other laboratory services currently provided,” he added.
UK Government Officials Question How Lab Won Lucrative COVID-19 Testing Contracts
Immensa was awarded a £119 million (US$163.37 million) coronavirus testing contract by the British government in October 2020, just months after it was founded by Andrea Riposati, owner/CEO of Dante Labs, which has clinical laboratories in the UK, Italy, and the United Arab Emirates. The company’s corporate headquarters are in New York City while its scientific operations are based in the UK.
NHS Test and Trace, the government program to track and help prevent the spread of COVID-19, has advised people who received the false test results, but who may still be infectious, to be retested.
In responding to the UKHSA’s action, Riposati pointed to Immensa’s track record and reiterated the laboratory’s emphasis on quality.
“We are fully collaborating with UKHSA on this matter. Quality is paramount for us,” Riposati said in the UKHSA statement. “We have proudly analyzed more than 2.5 million samples for NHS Test and Trace, working closely with the great teams at DHSC and UKHSA. We do not wish this matter or anything else to tarnish the amazing work done by the UK in this pandemic.”
Clinical Laboratories Not Accredited to Perform COVID-19 Testing
However, on October 18, 2021, The Guardian reported that the Immensa Health Clinic was not accredited by the UKAS, the UK’s independent accreditation service, before being appointed to perform COVID-19 testing. Dante Labs also has not been awarded UKAS accreditation, according to the newspaper report.
Government officials previously maintained that Immensa was “accredited to all of the appropriate standards.”
Immensa first made headlines in January 2021 when The Sun published an expose´ that included video of employees fighting, drinking, and bragging about watching porn while working at the clinical laboratory.
News of the testing failure at Immensa caused Tory MP Nigel Mills to tell The Sun, “This place should have been shut down for good when The Sun ran its [original] story. It is shocking it has been allowed to remain open and now there is an enormous mess.
“It’s a disgrace,” he added. “If shortcomings have emerged in the process here—which I strongly imagine they have—then heads should roll. The investigation should widen out and an audit should be carried out into other testing companies.”
Dante Labs Under Other Investigations
Immensa’s parent company, Dante Labs, is also under investigation in the UK due to concerns the company “may be treating its customers unfairly.”
Potentially not delivering PCR tests and/or results on time or at all,
Failing to respond to complaints or provide proper customer service,
Refusing or delaying refunds when requested, and
Providing terms and conditions that may unfairly limit consumers’ rights.
According to The Guardian, Dante Labs’ US operation also faced scrutiny in 2018 after the company admitting it had sent five used DNA test kits to people containing the saliva of other people. Dante Labs maintained its shipping company was the cause of the error.
US Labs Also Face Scrutiny over False Negative Test Results
Since the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 in early 2020, there have been only a limited number of news accounts about clinical laboratories that reported a substantial number of inaccurate COVID-19 test results, either in the United States or the United Kingdom. In the US, there has been more news coverage of the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecuting lab owners and related parties for submitting fraudulent claims for COVID-19 tests.
But the absence of those news accounts does not mean that there have been no incidents in the US where a lab testing company reported significant numbers of inaccurate COVID-19 test results.
Then on June 22, 2020, KHN reported that the FDA had “received a total of 106 reports of adverse events for the Abbott test, a staggering increase. The agency has not received a single adverse event report for any other point-of-care tests meant to diagnose COVID-19.”
The UK lab’s failures are simply the latest example of how inaccurate test results erode the trust of healthcare consumers and draw the ire of politicians and government regulators. In this case, however, poor government oversight of a newly minted COVID-19 testing laboratory should face equal scrutiny.