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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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UK’s National Health Service Tests AI Tool That Can Spot Cancer in Mammograms Missed by Doctors

This AI platform has the potential to also reduce workload of radiologists, but also of anatomic pathologists and oncologists allowing them to be more productive

When the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) recently tested an artificial intelligence (AI) platform’s ability to analyze mammograms, the AI found early signs of breast cancer that “human doctors” had previously missed, the BBC reported. This level of ability by AI might soon be adapted to aid overworked anatomic pathologists and cancer doctors in the United Kingdom.

The pilot program, which was conducted at NHS Grampian Aberdeen in Scotland, tested the Mammography Intelligent Assessment (MIA) AI platform for breast screening developed by Kheiron Medical Technologies and Imperial College London

Out of 10,000 mammograms MIA analyzed, the AI platform found “tiny signs of breast cancer in 11 women” which had not been spotted during earlier examinations, the BBC noted, adding that the cancers “were practically invisible to the human eye.”

This is a significant development in AI’s role in healthcare. Anatomic pathologists and clinical laboratory leaders will note that ongoing advancements in AI are enabling technology developers to apply their solutions to assessing radiology images, as well as in whole slide imaging used in digital pathology. In the UK, use of AI, the BBC noted, may also help ease doctor’s workloads.

“This is just the beginning of our work with Kheiron,” said Ben Glocker, PhD (above), Professor in Machine Learning for Imaging at Imperial College London and Head of ML Research at Kheiron Medical, in a news release. “We are actively working on new methodologies for the safe deployment and continuous monitoring of MIA to support a US and UK rollout. We are working hard to make sure that as many women as possible will benefit from the use of this new technology within the next year.” AI tools such as MIA may soon take much of the load from anatomic pathologists and radiologists. (Photo copyright: Imperial College London.)

MIA Cloud-based AI Platform

Kheiron was founded in 2016 and MIA was named one of the seven biggest medical breakthroughs in 2023 by ABC News. A study conducted by Imperial College London in 2023 found that MIA “could significantly increase the early detection of breast cancers in a European healthcare setting by up to 13%,” according to an Imperial news release.

“The study was conducted over three phases (two pilot phases and a live roll-out). Overall across the three phases, the AI reader found 24 more cancers than the standard human reading—a 7% relative increase—and resulted in 70 more women recalled (0.28% relative increase),” the news release reported. “Of the additional recalls, six (initial pilot), 13 (extended pilot), and 11 (live use) additional cancers were found, increasing relative cancer detection rate by 13%, 10%, and 5% respectively. [The researchers] found that 83% of the additional cancers detected using MIA in real clinical practice were invasive, showing that MIA can detect cancers where early detection is particularly vital.”

Supported by Microsoft’s Azure Cloud, MIA came together over six years based on training encompassing millions of mammograms worldwide, Healthcare Digital reported.

“AI tools are generally pretty good at spotting symptoms of a specific disease if they are trained on enough data to enable them to be identified. This means feeding the program with as many different anonymized images of those symptoms as possible, from as diverse a range of people as possible,” Sarah Kerruish, Chief Strategy Officer, Kheiron, told Healthcare Digital.

MIA has been trained to “recognize subtle patterns and anomalies” that can point to “cancerous cells even in their earliest stages of development,” Dataconomy reported.

MIA Finds Early Cancer Signs

In the pilot study, MIA examined mammograms from 10,889 women. Each image had previously been reviewed by two radiologists, the BBC reported.

Findings include the following according to Healthcare Digital:

  • MIA “flagged” all people the physicians previously identified with symptoms.
  • The AI platform discovered 11 people with cancer the doctors did not identify.
  • The cancer MIA discovered—and the doctors did not—suggested cancer in early stages.

So, how did the doctors miss the cancer that MIA spotted? Gerald Lip, MD, Clinical Director for Breast Screening in North East Scotland who led the pilot study for the NHS, told Healthcare Digital, “part of the power of AI is it’s not prone to exhaustion or distraction.

“There is an element of fatigue,” he said. “You get disruptions, someone’s coming in, someone’s chatting in the background. There are lots of things that can probably throw you off your regular routine as well. And in those days when you have been distracted, you go, ‘how on earth did I miss that?’ It does happen.”

Lip is also the Chief Investigator in the Mammography Artificial Intelligence Project in the Industrial Center for Artificial Intelligence and Digital Diagnostics in Scotland.  

“I see MIA as a friend and an augmentation to my practice,” he told Healthcare Digital. “MIA isn’t perfect. It had no access to patient history so [it] would flag cysts that had already been identified by previous scans and designated harmless.”

AI as a Safety Net

In the 2023 study, researchers from Imperial College London deployed MIA as an extra reader for mammograms of 25,065 women who visited screening sites in Hungary between April 2021 and January 2023, according to a news release.

“Our prospective real-world usage data in Hungary provides evidence for a significant, measurable increase of early breast cancer detection when MIA is used in clinical practice,” said Peter Kecskemethy, PhD, CEO and co-founder of Kheiron Medical, in the news release.

“Our study shows that AI can act as an effective safety net—a tool to prevent subtler signs of cancer from falling through the cracks,” said Ben Glocker, PhD, Professor in Machine Learning for Imaging at Imperial College London and Head of ML Research at Kheiron Medical, in the news release.

More studies are needed before MIA can be used in clinical settings. Nevertheless, use of AI in radiology—specifically mammograms—where the AI tool can identify very small cancers typically undetectable by radiologists, would be a boon to cancer doctors and the patients they treat.

So far, the research suggests that the AI-powered MIA has benefits to deployment in breast cancer screening. Eventually, it may also make impressive contributions to medical diagnosis and patient care, particularly if MIA eventually proves to be effective at analyzing the whole slide images used by anatomic pathologists. 

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

NHS AI Test Spots Tiny Cancers Missed by Doctors

Seven Biggest Medical Breakthroughs of 2023

AI Tool Picks up Early-Stage Breast Cancers Doctors Missed

AI Tool MIA Accurately Detects Subtle Breast Cancers

Meet MIA/Introducing Kheiron Medical Technologies

New AI Tool Detects up to 13% More Breast Cancers than Human Clinicians Can

Prospective Implementation of AI-assisted Screen Reading to Improve Early Detection of Breast Cancer

Measles Cases in the US, Europe, and Other Countries are Increasing, Slowing Progress on Efforts to Eliminate the Disease

Clinical laboratory managers should prepare for an increase in demand for measles testing, especially for children

Clinical laboratory managers should be on the alert for new cases of measles. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported a surge in the highly infectious disease. Public health experts pointed to declining vaccination coverage as the primary cause. Officials in other countries have also reported outbreaks.

In 2000, the US declared that measles had been eliminated, meaning it “is no longer constantly present in this country,” the CDC stated on its website. However, the agency noted travelers can still bring the disease into the country and that there have been sporadic outbreaks since then.

In a new study, published April 11, 2024, in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), the agency reported that it was notified of 97 confirmed cases in the first quarter of 2024. That compares to an average of five cases during the first quarters of 2020 through 2023, the agency stated. In total, 338 cases were reported to the CDC between Jan. 1, 2020, and March 28, 2024, so the latest outbreaks amount to 29%—nearly a third—of the total.

“While the risk for measles for the majority of the US population still remains low, it’s crucial that we take the necessary steps now to prevent the continued spread of measles and maintain elimination in the US,” Adria D. Mathis, MSPH, lead author of the CDC report, told Healthline. Mathis is affiliated with the CDC’s Division of Viral Diseases at the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD).

“We have seen, in the region, not only a 30-fold increase in measles cases, but also nearly 21,000 hospitalizations and five measles-related deaths. This is concerning,” Hans Henri P. Kluge, MD (above), WHO Regional Director for Europe, told BBC News. “Vaccination is the only way to protect children from this potentially dangerous disease.” Clinical laboratories in the US that identify a case of measles from a positive test must report that result to public health labs. Thus, wise lab managers will track the rise in measles cases and prepare for increased demand for measles testing. (Photo copyright: World Health Organization.)

Renewed Threat to the US, Other Countries

The recent cases “represent a renewed threat to the US elimination status,” and “underscore the need for additional efforts to increase measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination coverage, especially among close-knit and under-vaccinated communities,” Mathis told Healthline.

The MMWR report notes that most of the new cases were in persons under age 20, and that almost all were “in persons who were unvaccinated or whose vaccination status was unknown.” Most of the importations, the report states, were “among persons traveling to and from countries in the Eastern Mediterranean and African WHO [World Health Organization] regions; these regions experienced the highest reported measles incidence among all WHO regions during 2021–2022.”

In the US, vaccination coverage has been below 95% for three consecutive years. That is the “estimated population-level immunity necessary to prevent sustained measles transmission,” according to the federal agency. In 12 states and the District of Columbia, the coverage rate is below 90%. In total, “approximately 250,000 kindergarten children [are] susceptible to measles each year,” the CDC report states.

Measles vaccination coverage has declined globally, “from 86% in 2019 to 83% in 2022.” This left nearly 22 million children under the age of one susceptible to the disease, the report notes.

Earlier Measles Outbreaks in the US

The CDC performed its latest analysis following two larger measles outbreaks in 2019 among under-vaccinated populations in New York state.

The Associated Press (AP) reported that the 2019 epidemic, which totaled 1,274 cases nationwide, “was the worst in almost three decades and threatened the United States’ status as a country that has eliminated measles by stopping the continual spread of the measles virus.”

A vaccine for the disease first became available in 1963. Prior to its availability, “there were some three million to four million cases per year,” AP reported. Most people recover, but “in the decade before the vaccine was available, 48,000 people were hospitalized per year. … About 1,000 people developed dangerous brain inflammation from measles each year, and 400 to 500 died,” AP noted, citing CDC data.

US Not Alone in Fight against Measles

Other countries also are reporting spikes in measles cases. In a recently published rapid risk assessment, the Canadian government reported a total of 29 cases as of March 15, 2024, of which 21 were reported since Feb. 28.

“That’s already the largest annual total since 2019 and more than double the number of cases reported last year, as medical experts fear the number will rise while more Canadians travel in and out of the country this month for March break,” CBC News reported.

“New projections from a team at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in British Columbia show the grim possibilities,” CBC News reported. “The modelling suggests that vaccine coverage of less than 85% can lead to dozens of cases within small communities—or even hundreds if immunization rates are lower.”

Numbers are far worse in parts of Europe. In a February 2024 news release, the World Health Organization reported that in 2023, more than 58,000 people in its European region were infected by the disease, “resulting in thousands of hospitalizations and 10 measles-related deaths.”

According to WHO epidemiological data, countries in Central Asia, which is part of WHO’s European region, reported some of the highest numbers:

  • 15,111 in Kazakhstan,
  • 13,735 in Azerbaijan, and
  • 7,044 in Kyrgyzstan.

The Russian Federation reported 12,723 cases and Turkey reported 4,559.

A WHO European Region Measles and Rubella Monthly Update notes that more than half of the regionwide cases—31,428—were reported in the last three months of 2023. More than 15,000 cases were reported in December. That compares to just 163 cases reported in 2021 and 942 in 2022. Nearly half of the cases were among children under the age of five.

Lack of Vaccinations among Children Blamed for Outbreaks

One factor that has led to the increase in measles cases was the disruption to immunization services caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “This has resulted in a significant accumulation of susceptible children who have missed their routine vaccinations against measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases,” the WHO reported.

Among the region’s 53 member states, 33 had eliminated measles, WHO reported, but “this achievement remains fragile. To retain this status, a country must ensure that transmission of the virus following any importation is stopped within 12 months from the first reported case.”

In the UK, which reported 231 cases last year, the National Health Service has launched a campaign to improve vaccination rates, the BBC reported, noting that “more than 3.4 million children aged under 16 are unprotected and at risk of becoming ill.”

However, a public health campaign built on vaccination is successful only if a high rate of individuals get vaccinated. The Baby Boomer and Gen X generations had high rates of vaccination for smallpox, polio, etc. because the parents saw individuals in their family and neighborhood who became infected and suffered lifechanging consequences. They recognized that vaccination was a simple thing to provide protection from a potentially deadly infection.

Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists will want to follow the CDC’s ongoing reports of the number of cases of measles in this country. Today, the absolute number of new measles cases is relatively small. At the same time, in communities experiencing an outbreak of even a few measles cases, physicians may want to increase the volume of measles tests they order for their patients.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

Canada Heading Toward Major Measles Outbreak without Vaccine Boost, New Modelling Suggests

A Review of the Resurgence of Measles, a Vaccine-Preventable Disease, as Current Concerns Contrast with Past Hopes for Measles Elimination

Alarming 45-Fold Rise in Measles in Europe-WHO

US Declared Measles Gone in 2000—New Outbreaks May Change That

US Measles Cases Are Up in 2024. What’s Driving the Increase?

CDC Warns That Measles Spike Poses A ‘Renewed Threat’ To the Disease’s Elimination

Measles Vaccine Campaign Targets Unprotected Millions

UK’s NHS Offers Blood Pressure Screening for Men in Barber Shops and Other Public Locations in an Effort to Reach Consumers Where They Live and Work

This pioneering innovation is consistent with the trend to bring medical services to places more convenient for consumers and was spurred by a study which showed men twice as likely to have heart attacks than women

Patient-facing healthcare gets a boost with this novel program to offer a diagnostic service in locations frequented by men. In an attempt to decrease heart attacks in the UK, the country’s National Health Service (NHS) now employs a novel approach to prevention—bringing blood pressure screenings to the public in barbershops.

This is yet another example of moving diagnostics services out of traditional healthcare settings and reaching people in places that they visit in their daily lives. True, this is a blood pressure test. But once the service is established, it should be easy to collect other types of clinical laboratory specimens at barbershops as well. And if this approach enables healthcare policy makers to reach a population that needs further diagnostic tests—and it’s economically feasible—that may encourage adoption of this approach for other types of health screenings.

According to The Guardian, the screenings will be available at “barbershops, churches, mosques, community centers, and dominoes clubs.” The intention is to ensure screenings are more accessible, to educate the public, and to encourage lifestyle changes that lead to prevention.

This consumer-directed approach to healthcare by the NHS appears to be making a difference. The new screening locations already show promise. In 2023, efforts brought in 150,000 community-based blood pressure screenings by August. That more than doubled the previous year’s 58,000 that were performed by May, The Guardian noted.

The funding for this initiative is part of the NHS’ Delivery Plan for Recovering Access to Primary Care, an NHS England news release announced.

David Webb

“With the number of people living with major illnesses including heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions set to grow substantially over the coming years, it has never been more important to put in place preventive measures like easy-to-access blood pressure checks that can pick up the early signs and risks,” said David Webb (above), Chief Pharmaceutical Officer for England, NHS England, in a news release. Should this program succeed, it’s likely other types of clinical laboratory test specimens could also be collected in barbershops and other convenient locations. (Photo copyright: Paul Stuart/The Pharmaceutical Journal.)

Importance of Screening

According to the UK’s Health Foundation, more than 9.1 million people will have a major illness by 2040, and figures show an increase of 2.5 million from 2019 reports. These figures are “why prevention and early intervention tools such as community blood pressure checks are key priorities for the NHS,” the NHS news release states.

“Having high blood pressure raises the risk of a heart attack, but many men and women remain unaware they may be affected because typically there are no symptoms,” The Guardian reported. “Every year there are 100,000 NHS hospital admissions due to heart attacks—one every five minutes.”

The NHS’ moves were spurred by recent findings announced at the European Society of Cardiology’s 2023 annual meeting. The world’s largest heart conference showcased a 22-year-long study examining the gender-specific risks of cardiovascular diseases. The results clearly showed that men were twice as likely to experience heart attacks and peripheral artery disease than women.

The University of Aberdeen conducted the study which ran from 1993-2018 and followed 20,000 individuals over the age of 40. While researchers noted many factors—such as ethnicity, body mass index (BMI), physical activity, deprivation, consumption of alcohol, and cigarette smoke—a clear defining line landed between male and female participants, The Guardian reported. Additionally,“Men are also more likely to experience a heart attack at a younger age than women.”

And, according to the study, while cardiovascular disease was higher for men during their entire lifetime, “sex differences were most pronounced for myocardial infarction and peripheral artery disease, followed by atrial fibrillation, heart failure, and cardiovascular mortality,” The Guardian reported, adding, “Men also have a 50% higher risk of heart failure and atrial fibrillation. The study discovered that men have a 42% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. The research did not look at why.”

Education Part of Prevention

“Men should start looking early at-risk factors, like obesity, lack of exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption, and reach out to their GP to get those things addressed. The earlier the better. There’s no harm in minimizing your cardiovascular risk,” Tiberiu Pana, MRes, lead researcher and honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen, told The Guardian. Pana is also a junior doctor in the NHS and focuses on cardiovascular epidemiology and the brain-heart interactions.

“Coronary heart disease is the most common killer of men. There’s never been a better time to get physically active and replace that pub session with an extra session in the gym,” cardiologist Sonya Babu-Narayan, MBBS, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, told The Guardian. Babu-Narayan is also a consultant cardiologist at Royal Brompton Hospital.

Women, however, are not exempt from the risk of heart disease.

“If we consider the effects of heart disease over a lifetime, we need to remember that it costs lives for both men and women,” Babu-Narayan said. “With 30,000 women in the UK admitted to hospital with a heart attack each year, it is vital to dismantle the dogma that heart attacks are the preserve of men. Regardless of gender, cardiovascular disease is the world’s biggest killer and there are steps everyone can take to reduce their risks.”

In addition to the aforementioned community locations for screenings, NHS has launched a few other approaches to meet patients on their own turf.

A mobile blood pressure service named How’s Thi Ticker in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, “travels around local neighborhoods including to barber shops, supermarkets, and community centers, seeing more than a third of people referred to pharmacists with high blood pressure—freeing up GPs and catching early signs of heart attack and stroke risk,” according to the NHS news release.

Future Showing Further Promise

As the process continues, NHS expects to prevent 1,350 cardiovascular events every year, and expects to see 2.5 million more blood pressure checks performed in the community in England as a result of the endeavor, The Guardian noted.

One can only imagine how far this trend can go. Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists can expect healthcare policy makers in the UK to continue their efforts to bring needed diagnostic testing to underserved populations in accessible ways. This should be a win-win financially and in improving the health of the country’s population.

—Kristin Althea O’Connor

Related Information:

Men in England to Be Offered Blood Pressure Checks in Barbershops

NHS Blood Pressure Checks at the Barbers to Prevent Killer Conditions

Delivery Plan for Recovering Access to Primary Care

Google DeepMind Says Its New Artificial Intelligence Tool Can Predict Which Genetic Variants Are Likely to Cause Disease

Genetic engineers at the lab used the new tool to generate a catalog of 71 million possible missense variants, classifying 89% as either benign or pathogenic

Genetic engineers continue to use artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning to develop research tools that have implications for clinical laboratories. The latest development involves Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence lab which has created an AI tool that, they say, can predict whether a single-letter substitution in DNA—known as a missense variant (aka, missense mutation)—is likely to cause disease.

The Google engineers used their new model—dubbed AlphaMissense—to generate a catalog of 71 million possible missense variants. They were able to classify 89% as likely to be either benign or pathogenic mutations. That compares with just 0.1% that have been classified using conventional methods, according to the DeepMind engineers.

This is yet another example of how Google is investing to develop solutions for healthcare and medical care. In this case, DeepMind might find genetic sequences that are associated with disease or health conditions. In turn, these genetic sequences could eventually become biomarkers that clinical laboratories could use to help physicians make earlier, more accurate diagnoses and allow faster interventions that improve patient care.

The Google engineers published their findings in the journal Science titled, “Accurate Proteome-wide Missense Variant Effect Prediction with AlphaMissense.” They also released the catalog of predictions online for use by other researchers.

Jun Cheng, PhD (left), and Žiga Avsec, PhD (right)

“AI tools that can accurately predict the effect of variants have the power to accelerate research across fields from molecular biology to clinical and statistical genetics,” wrote Google DeepMind engineers Jun Cheng, PhD (left), and Žiga Avsec, PhD (right), in a blog post describing the new tool. Clinical laboratories benefit from the diagnostic biomarkers generated by this type of research. (Photo copyrights: LinkedIn.)

AI’s Effect on Genetic Research

Genetic experiments to identify which mutations cause disease are both costly and time-consuming, Google DeepMind engineers Jun Cheng, PhD, and Žiga Avsec, PhD, wrote in a blog post. However, artificial intelligence sped up that process considerably.

“By using AI predictions, researchers can get a preview of results for thousands of proteins at a time, which can help to prioritize resources and accelerate more complex studies,” they noted.

Of all possible 71 million variants, approximately 6%, or four million, have already been seen in humans, they wrote, noting that the average person carries more than 9,000. Most are benign, “but others are pathogenic and can severely disrupt protein function,” causing diseases such as cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anemia, and cancer.

“A missense variant is a single letter substitution in DNA that results in a different amino acid within a protein,” Cheng and Avsec wrote in the blog post. “If you think of DNA as a language, switching one letter can change a word and alter the meaning of a sentence altogether. In this case, a substitution changes which amino acid is translated, which can affect the function of a protein.”

In the Google DeepMind study, AlphaMissense predicted that 57% of the 71 million variants are “likely benign,” 32% are “likely pathogenic,” and 11% are “uncertain.”

The AlphaMissense model is adapted from an earlier model called AlphaFold which uses amino acid genetic sequences to predict the structure of proteins.

“AlphaMissense was fed data on DNA from humans and closely related primates to learn which missense mutations are common, and therefore probably benign, and which are rare and potentially harmful,” The Guardian reported. “At the same time, the program familiarized itself with the ‘language’ of proteins by studying millions of protein sequences and learning what a ‘healthy’ protein looks like.”

The model assigned each variant a score between 0 and 1 to rate the likelihood of pathogenicity [the potential for a pathogen to cause disease]. “The continuous score allows users to choose a threshold for classifying variants as pathogenic or benign that matches their accuracy requirements,” Avsec and Cheng wrote in their blog post.

However, they also acknowledged that it doesn’t indicate exactly how the variation causes disease.

The engineers cautioned that the predictions in the catalog are not intended for clinical use. Instead, they “should be interpreted with other sources of evidence.” However, “this work has the potential to improve the diagnosis of rare genetic disorders, and help discover new disease-causing genes,” they noted.

Genomics England Sees a Helpful Tool

BBC noted that AlphaMissense has been tested by Genomics England, which works with the UK’s National Health Service. “The new tool is really bringing a new perspective to the data,” Ellen Thomas, PhD, Genomics England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, told the BBC. “It will help clinical scientists make sense of genetic data so that it is useful for patients and for their clinical teams.”

AlphaMissense is “a big step forward,” Ewan Birney, PhD, Deputy Director General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) told the BBC. “It will help clinical researchers prioritize where to look to find areas that could cause disease.”

Other experts, however, who spoke with MIT Technology Review were less enthusiastic.

“DeepMind is being DeepMind,” Insilico Medicine founder/CEO Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD, told the MIT publication. “Amazing on PR and good work on AI.”

Heidi Rehm, PhD, co-director of the Program in Medical and Population Genetics at the Broad Institute, suggested that the DeepMind engineers overstated the certainty of the model’s predictions. She told the publication that she was “disappointed” that they labeled the variants as benign or pathogenic.

“The models are improving, but none are perfect, and they still don’t get you to pathogenic or not,” she said.

“Typically, experts don’t declare a mutation pathogenic until they have real-world data from patients, evidence of inheritance patterns in families, and lab tests—information that’s shared through public websites of variants such as ClinVar,” the MIT article noted.

Is AlphaMissense a Biosecurity Risk?

Although DeepMind has released its catalog of variations, MIT Technology Review notes that the lab isn’t releasing the entire AI model due to what it describes as a “biosecurity risk.”

The concern is that “bad actors” could try using it on non-human species, DeepMind said. But one anonymous expert described the restrictions “as a transparent effort to stop others from quickly deploying the model for their own uses,” the MIT article noted.

And so, genetics research takes a huge step forward thanks to Google DeepMind, artificial intelligence, and deep learning. Clinical laboratories and pathologists may soon have useful new tools that help healthcare provider diagnose diseases. Time will tell. But the developments are certain worth watching.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

AlphaFold Is Accelerating Research in Nearly Every Field of Biology

A Catalogue of Genetic Mutations to Help Pinpoint the Cause of Diseases

Accurate Proteome-wide Missense Variant Effect Prediction with AlphaMissense

Google DeepMind AI Speeds Up Search for Disease Genes

DeepMind Is Using AI to Pinpoint the Causes of Genetic Disease

DeepMind’s New AI Can Predict Genetic Diseases

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

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