As we noted, thousands of clinical laboratory tests and surgical pathology readings had to be delayed or cancelled due to the strikes.
An NHS worker in a Liverpool hospital told CNN that conditions felt like a “war zone” with patients being treated in the backs of ambulances, corridors, waiting rooms, cupboards, or not at all since hospitals are well over capacity.
“Those who can afford to get private insurance are,” Chris Thomas (above), told The Guardian. Thomas is Head of the Commission on Health and Prosperity for UK progressive policy think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). “People are not opting out of the NHS because they have stopped believing in it as the best and fairest model of healthcare,” he said. “Rather, those who can afford it are being forced to go private … and those without the funds are left to ‘put up or shut up.’” (Photo copyright: Institute for Public Policy Research.)
Two-Tier System Could Become UK’s Norm, Dividing Classes
The drive towards private insurance is leaving Britain on the brink of having a “two-tier” system where the NHS is overpowered by private healthcare. And it’s not an unwarranted fear. One in six people in Britain are prepared to use private healthcare instead of waiting for the NHS, The Guardian reported.
A report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) claims a UK two-tiered system would not mimic what we have here in the US. Rather, if the trend continues in the private direction, it would more likely be comparable to dentistry in England, “… where poor NHS access exists for some and superior but expensive access exists for many. We stand at the precipice of a growing ‘opt-out’ by those who can,” according to the IPPR report, The Guardian noted.
More importantly, this could further divide classes. “Such a trend could threaten the deep and widespread public support for the NHS among voters and leave millions of patients vulnerable because of their ethnicity, postcode, income or job,” The Guardian noted the IPPR report as saying.
“It’s different when you see your everyday reality though naïve eyes. He saw the elderly patients on the jigsaw of trolleys crammed into the department, pushed against the wall, squeezed in the gap between the bed and nursing stations.
“He saw the fluids hanging from rails where we had no stands, lines running into the patient’s forearms. He saw the oxygen fed into their noses from cylinders propped along the bed, the cacophony of beeping machines and alarms.
“It doesn’t look like it does on the TV. It doesn’t even look like it does on reality TV,” she wrote.
The healthcare statistics are alarming. According to CNN:
There was a 20% increase in excess deaths the final week of December 2022, compared to the previous five years.
Half of patients waiting for emergency care that month waited for more than four hours, which was a record.
Also in December, 54,000 people waited more than 12 hours for emergency admission. The wait was “virtually zero” prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And “category 2” conditions, such as a stroke or heart attack, had a more than 90-minute wait time for ambulance attendance. The target response time is 18 minutes.
Dim Hopes for Improvement
Though the NHS has struggled in recent years, the challenges are seemingly worse now. “This time feels different. It’s never been as bad as this,” gastroenterologist Peter Neville, MD, a consultant physician who worked with the NHS since 1989, told CNN.
CNN noted that a perfect storm of challenges might have brought the NHS to where it is today. COVID-19, flu seasons paired with COVID, lack of financial support, lack of social support, staffing and morale issues are just some of the problems that the NHS must address.
Experts point out that as the NHS’ struggles increase so begins a loop where one problem feeds another. Patients who wait to be seen have treatments that take longer, then they get sicker, and the cycle continues.
Despite having one of the highest proportions of government healthcare spending on Earth, up to 40% of Britons report having accessed or plan to access private care, Breitbart reported.
Sadly, it’s unlikely enough cash will come in from the UK government to make significant improvements for the NHS. The budget announcement in November showed the NHS was to get an average 2% spending increase over the next two years, CNN reported.
Are there lessons here for US hospitals, clinical laboratories, and pathology groups? Perhaps. It’s always instructive to see how our fellow healthcare providers across the pond respond to public pressure for more access to quality care.
The NHS estimates that the plan will benefit more than 1,000 children and babies each year, including newborns with rare diseases such as cancer, as well as kids placed in intensive care after being admitted to hospitals. Instead of waiting weeks for results from conventional tests, clinicians will be able to administer a simple blood test and get results within days, the NHS said in a press release.
The press release notes that about 75% of rare genetic diseases appear during childhood “and are responsible for almost a third of neonatal intensive care deaths.”
Here in the United States, pathologists and clinical laboratory managers should see this development as a progressive step toward expanding access to genetic tests and whole genome sequencing services. The UK is looking at this service as a nationwide service. By contrast, given the size of the population and geography of the United States, as this line of medical laboratory testing expands in the US, it will probably be centered in select regional centers of excellence.
“This strategy sets out how more people will be empowered to take preventative action following risk-based predictions, receive life-changing diagnoses, and get the support needed to live with genomically-informed diagnoses alongside improved access to cutting-edge precision [medicine] treatments. It also outlines how the NHS will accelerate future high-quality genomic innovation that can be adopted and spread across the country, leading to positive impacts for current and future generations,” the NHS wrote.
“This global first is an incredible moment for the NHS and will be revolutionary in helping us to rapidly diagnose the illnesses of thousands of seriously ill children and babies—saving countless lives in the years to come,” said NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard (above) in a press release announcing the program. (Photo copyright: Hospital Times.)
New Rapid Whole Genome Sequencing Service
The NHS announced the plan following a series of trials last year. In one trial, a five-day old infant was admitted to a hospital in Cheltenham, Gloucester, with potentially deadly levels of ammonia in his blood. Whole genome sequencing revealed that changes in the CPS1 gene were preventing his body from breaking down nitrogen, which led to the spike in ammonia. He was given life-saving medication in advance of a liver transplant that doctors believed would cure the condition. Without the rapid genetic test, doctors likely would have performed an invasive liver biopsy.
Using a simple blood test, the new newborn genetic screening service in England is expected to benefit more than 1,000 critically ill infants each year, potentially saving their lives. “The rapid whole genome testing service will transform how rare genetic conditions are diagnosed,” explained Emma Baple, PhD, Professor of Genomic Medicine at University of Exeter Medical School and leader of the National Rapid Whole Genome Sequencing Service in the press release. “We know that with prompt and accurate diagnosis, conditions could be cured or better managed with the right clinical care, which would be life-altering—and potentially life-saving—for so many seriously unwell babies and children,” Precision Medicine Institute reported.
According to The Guardian, test results will be available in two to seven days.
Along with the new rWGS testing service, the NHS announced a five-year plan to implement genomic medicine more broadly. The provisions include establishment of an ethics advisory board, more training for NHS personnel, and an expansion of genomic testing within the existing NHS diagnostic infrastructure. The latter could include using NHS Community Diagnostics centers to collect blood samples from family members to test for inherited diseases.
UK’s Longtime Interest in Whole Genome Sequencing
The UK government has long been interested in the potential role of WGS for delivering better outcomes for patients with genetic diseases, The Guardian reported.
In 2013, the government launched the 100,000 Genomes Project to examine the usefulness of the technology. In November 2021, investigators with the project reported the results of a large pilot study in which they analyzed the genomes of 4,660 individuals with rare diseases. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled, “100,000 Genomes Pilot on Rare-Disease Diagnosis in Health Care—Preliminary Report,” found “a substantial increase in yield of genomic diagnoses made in patients with the use of genome sequencing across a broad spectrum of rare disease.”
The study’s findings suggest that use of WGS “could save the NHS millions of pounds,” The Guardian reported.
Whole Genome Sequencing System for Newborns in the US
“This NBS-rWGS [newborn screening by rapid whole genome sequencing] system is designed to complement the existing newborn screening process and has the potential to eliminate the diagnostic and therapeutic odyssey that many children and parents face,” Kingsmore said in a press release. “Currently, only 35 core genetic disorders are recommended for newborn screening in the United States, but there are more than 7,200 known genetic diseases. Outcomes remain poor for newborns with a genetic disease because of the limited number of recommended screenings. With NBS-rWGS, we can more quickly expand that number and therefore potentially improve outcomes through precision medicine.”
A more recent 2023 study which examined 112 infant deaths at Rady Children’s Hospital found that 40% of the babies had genetic diseases. In seven infants, genetic diseases were identified post-mortem, and in five of them “death might have been avoided had rapid, diagnostic WGS been performed at time of symptom onset or regional intensive care unit admission,” the authors wrote.
“Prior etiologic studies of infant mortality are generally retrospective, based on electronic health record and death certificate review, and without genome information, leading to underdiagnosis of genetic diseases,” said Christina Chambers, PhD, co-author of the study, in a press release. “In fact, prior studies show at least 30% of death certificates have inaccuracies. By implementing broad use of genome sequencing in newborns we might substantially reduce infant mortality.”
Pioneering work with whole genome sequencing for newborns, such as that being conducted by the clinical laboratory and genetic teams at Rady Children’s Hospital and the UK’s NHS, could allow doctors to make timely interventions for our most vulnerable patients.
Supplychain shortages involving clinical laboratory products may not ease up any time soon, as China’s largest shipping province is once again in COVID-19 lockdown
Following two years of extremely high demand, pathology laboratories as well as non-medical labs in the United Kingdom (UK) and Europe are experiencing significant shortages of laboratory resources as well as rising costs. That’s according to a recently released survey by Starlab Group, a European supplier of lab products.
In its latest annual “mood barometer” survey of around 200 lab professionals in the UK, Germany, Austria, Italy, and France, Starlab Group received reports of “empty warehouses” and a current shortage of much needed lab equipment, reportedly as a result of rising costs, high demand, and stockpiling of critical materials needed by pathology laboratories during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Laboratory News.
The survey respondents, who represented both medical laboratories and research labs, noted experiencing more pressure from staff shortages and insufficient supplies required to meet testing demands in 2021 as compared to 2020. For example, only 23% of respondents said they had enough liquid handling materials—such as protective gloves and pipettes—in 2021, down from 39% who responded to the same question in 2020.
“The entire laboratory industry has been in a vicious circle for two years. While more and more materials are needed, there’s a lack of supplies. At the same time, laboratories want to stockpile material, putting additional pressure on demand, suppliers, and prices,” Denise Fane de Salis, Starlab’s UK Managing Director and Area Head for Northern Europe, told Process Engineering. “Institutes that perform important basic work cannot keep up with the price competition triggered by COVID-19 and are particularly suffering from this situation,” she added.
Lab Supply Shortages Worsen in 2021
With a UK office in Milton Keynes, Starlab’s network of distributors specialize in liquid handling products including pipette tips, multi-channel pipettes, and cell culture tubes, as well as PCR test consumables and nitrile and latex gloves.
According to Laboratory News, Starlab’s 2021 annual survey, released in March 2022, found that:
64% cited late deliveries contributing to supply woes.
58% noted medical labs getting preference over research labs, up from 46% in 2020.
57% said demand for liquid handling products was the same as 2020.
30% of respondents said material requirements were up 50% in 2021, compared to 2020.
76% reported dealing with rising prices in lab operations.
29% expect their need for materials to increase by 25% in 2022, and 3% said the increase may go as high as 50%.
17% of respondents said they foresee challenges stemming from staff shortages, with 8% fearing employee burnout.
UK-European Medical Laboratories on Waiting Lists for Supplies
Could import of lab equipment and consumables from Asia and other areas outside UK have contributed to the shortages?
“A substantial portion of the world’s clinical laboratory automation, analyzers, instruments, and test kits are manufactured outside UK. Thus, UK labs may face a more acute shortage of lab equipment, tests, and consumables because governments in countries that manufacture these products are taking ‘first dibs’ on production, leaving less to ship to other countries,” said Robert Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily and our sister publication The Dark Report.
Indeed, a statement on Starlab’s website describes challenges the company faces meeting customers’ requests for supplies.
“The pandemic also has an impact on our products that are manufactured in other countries. This particularly affects goods that we ship from the Asian region to Europe by sea freight. Due to the capacity restrictions on the ships, we expect additional costs for the transport of goods at any time. Unfortunately, the situation is not expected to ease for the time-being,” Starlab said.
Furthermore, economists are forecasting probable ongoing supply chain effects from a new SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in China.
Lockdown of China’s Largest Shipping Province Threatens Supply Chains Worldwide
According to Bloomberg News, “Shenzhen’s 17.5 million residents [were] put into lockdown on [March 13] for at least a week. The city is located in Guangdong, the manufacturing powerhouse province, which has a gross domestic product of $1.96 trillion—around that of Spain and South Korea—and which accounts for 11% of China’s economy … Guangdong’s $795 billion worth of exports in 2021 accounted for 23% of China’s shipments that year, the most of any province.”
Bloomberg noted that “restrictions in Shenzhen could inflict the heaviest coronavirus-related blow to growth since a nationwide lockdown in 2020, with the additional threat of sending supply shocks rippling around the world.”
“Given that China is a major global manufacturing hub and one of the most important links in global supply chains, the country’s COVID policy can have notably spillovers to its trading partners’ activity and the global economy,” Tuuli McCully, Head of Asia-Pacific Economies, Scotiabank, told Bloomberg News.
Wise medical laboratory leaders will remain apprised of supply chain developments and possible lockdowns in Asia while also locating and possibly securing new sources for test materials and laboratory equipment in anticipation of future supply shortages.
Decision is part of UK effort to diagnose 75% of all cancers at stage I or stage II by 2028 and demonstrates to pathologists that the technology used in liquid biopsy tests is improving at a fast pace
Pathologists and medical laboratory scientists know that when it comes to liquid biopsy tests to detect cancer, there is plenty of both hope and hype. Nevertheless, following a successful pilot study at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester, England, which ran from 2015-2021, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is pushing forward with the use of liquid biopsy tests for certain cancer patients, The Guardian reported.
NHS’ decision to roll out the widespread use of liquid biopsies—a screening tool used to search for cancer cells or pieces of DNA from tumor cells in a blood sample—across the UK is a hopeful sign that ongoing improvements in this diagnostic technology are reaching a point where it may be consistently reliable when used in clinical settings.
The national program provides personalized drug therapies based on the genetic markers found in the blood tests of cancer patients who have solid tumors and are otherwise out of treatment options. The liquid biopsy creates, in essence, a match-making service for patients and clinical trials.
Liquid Biopsy Genetic Testing for Cancer Patients
“The learnings from our original ‘Target’ study in Manchester were that genetic testing needs to be done on a large scale to identify rare genetic mutations and that broader access to medicines through clinical trials being undertaken across the country rather than just one site are required,” Matthew Krebs, PhD, Clinical Senior Lecturer in Experimental Cancer Medicine at the University of Manchester, told The Guardian.
Krebs, an honorary consultant in medical oncology at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust, led the Target National pilot study.
“This study will allow thousands of cancer patients in the UK to access genetic testing via a liquid biopsy. This will enable us to identify rare genetic mutations that in some patients could mean access to life-changing experimental medicines that can provide great treatment responses, where there are otherwise limited or no other treatment options available.”
Detecting cancers at earlier stages of disease—when treatment is more likely to result in improved survival—has become a strategic cancer planning priority in the UK, theBMJ noted.
“The NHS is committed to diagnosing 75% of all cancers at stage I or II by 2028, from around 50% currently,” the BMJ wrote. “Achieving such progress in less than a decade would be highly ambitious, even without disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this context, considerable hope has been expressed that blood tests for circulating free DNA—sometimes known as liquid biopsy—could help achieve earlier detection of cancers.”
The Guardian noted that the UK’s initiative will use a liquid biopsy test made by Swiss-healthcare giant Roche.
In her article “The Promise of Liquid Biopsies for Cancer Diagnosis,” published in the American Journal of Managed Care (AJMC) Evidence-based Oncology, serial healthcare entrepreneur and faculty lecturer at Harvard Medical School Liz Kwo, MD, detailed the optimism surrounding the “revolutionary screening tool,” including its potential for:
Welch compared the investor hype surrounding liquid biopsies to that of the now-defunct blood testing company Theranos, which lured high-profile investors to pour millions into its unproven diagnostic technology.
“Effective cancer screening requires more than early detection. It also requires that starting therapy earlier helps people live to older ages than they would if they started treatment later,” he wrote. “If that doesn’t happen, liquid biopsies will only lead to people living longer with the knowledge they have a potentially incurable disease without extending their lives. These people would be subjected to cancer therapies and their toxicities earlier, but at a time when they would otherwise be experiencing no cancer-related signs or symptoms.”
And so, while there’s much excitement about the possibility of a minimally invasive way to detect cancer, anatomic pathology groups and clinical laboratories will have to wait and see if the hype and hope surrounding liquid biopsies is substantiated by further research.
Under-resourced British healthcare system faces a record high backlog of care with 5.61 million people in England waiting for hospital-based medical procedures
Healthcare in the United Kingdom (UK) is about to become much more expensive. The UK government has announced plans to substantially increase payroll taxes to fund the surging demand for care due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But that may only be the part of the healthcare-funding iceberg visible above the surface. Below the surface is a healthcare system where wait times for access to many types of care—including cancer diagnoses—are already unacceptable.
Some pathologists and medical laboratory executives in the US who have long questioned healthcare reformers’ desire to introduce an NHS-like single-payer healthcare system in this country will not be surprised to learn that the UK’s notoriously underfunded National Health Service (NHS) is facing a record waitlist for hospital-based medical diagnostic tests and procedures.
Consequently, Reuters reported, the high cost of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson into breaking with election promises and announcing plans to raise payroll taxes to record levels so that more money can be funneled into the struggling government-run healthcare system.
5.6M People on Growing NHS Waiting List for Treatments and Procedures
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the UK in March 2020, the NHS suspended elective surgeries such as hip or knee replacements and cataract removal and postponed many patients’ medical laboratory diagnostic tests.
In “Record 5.6M People in England Waiting for Hospital Treatment,” The Guardian estimated that 1.4 million patients were added to the waiting lists during the pandemic’s first 18 months. More than one-third of the 5.6 million people waiting for care in July 2021 had been on a waitlist for at least 18 months, the paper noted. Since then, the waiting list has grown by 150,000 people per month, as more people who did not seek or could not access NHS treatments during the pandemic returned to their doctors’ offices.
Johnson’s tax hike formula for fixing the record NHS backlog and improving social care for the elderly created shockwaves in the UK’s Conservative Party, which, like the Republican Party in this country, has championed low taxes. But Johnson maintains the government is out of options.
“It would be wrong for me to say that we can pay for this recovery without taking the difficult but responsible decisions about how we finance it,” Johnson told Parliament. “It would be irresponsible to meet the costs from higher borrowing and higher debt,” he added.
But Johnson’s proposal drew the wrath of some members of his own party and provided the opposition Labor Party with ammunition to denounce the prime minister’s leadership during the pandemic.
“This is a tax rise that breaks a promise that the prime minister made at the last election … Read my lips, the Tories can never again claim to be the party of low tax,” Starmer told Reuters.
Politics versus Hard Facts
According to The Guardian, in 2023-2024, national insurance contributions will be rebranded as a health and social care levy, with more of the money raised going to social care. The added funding will enable the UK government to implement a new cap on total care costs so that no individual will pay more than £86,000 (US$117,142) over their lifetime for social-care programs. Currently, many seniors are forced to sell their homes to meet unexpected care costs, the newspaper noted.
“One message to voters and investors is that taxes are set to rise for years to come,” the WSJ editorial board wrote, predicting the cost of social care will escalate as the UK’s population ages, and that the planned diversion of future taxes for social care will be presented as a “cut” in NHS funding. They maintained that the danger in Johnson’s decision goes deeper than breaking an election campaign pledge or nationalizing more of the UK’s healthcare economy.
“The larger problem is that national healthcare and other entitlements become ever more unaffordable even as they are politically impossible to reform,” the newspaper stated. “The Tories are becoming tax collectors for the entitlement state, which is deadly for parties of the right.”
Bloomberg noted that the UK Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts the planned April 1 tax increase will “raise the UK tax burden to its highest-ever sustained level since records began in 1955—about 35% of national income.”
But, according to the UK-based The Health Foundation, at £2,646.95 (US$3,648.43) per person in 2019, the United Kingdom spends less on healthcare than many developed countries. Less per person than the:
Japan (£2,949.19) and
And when healthcare costs are viewed as a percentage of a country’s gross domestic product (GDP), the UK (8% GDP) lags behind the US (13.9%), Germany (9.9%), Japan (9.3%) and France (9.3%) and exceeds only Canada (7.6%) and Italy (6.4%).
While US hospitals, healthcare systems, and patients continue to struggle with ever-increasing healthcare costs, reformers who promote a single-payer healthcare system as an answer to this nation’s healthcare ills may want to take a hard look at the outcomes of the UK’s model.
Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists interested in how the US healthcare system can be improved might be well-served to study the experience of the National Health Service in the UK, that, like all other health systems in the world, has its own unique methods for how it serves its population.