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.
Study shows that access to early childhood treatment could have lasting effects and prevent premature adult aging
Researchers in New Zealand have found that people who experienced “daily smoking status, obesity, or a psychological disorder diagnosis” beginning early in life were “biologically older” at midlife than those who did not. The findings suggest that early access to treatments for these health concerns could decrease risk for “accelerated biological aging,” according to the study published in JAMA Pediatrics.
Although these findings do not currently provide a path to a diagnostic test for clinical laboratories, this study is yet another example of how researchers are increasingly using broad swaths of healthcare data to help identify people at risk for certain healthcare conditions.
Such research often presents opportunities for medical laboratories to participate in healthcare Big Data analysis, which in turn helps healthcare providers make precision medicine diagnoses for individual patients.
Study Assessments and Clinical Laboratory Biomarkers
The scientists found that participants who had one of three health conditions as an adolescent—obesity, smoking daily, or psychological disorder (anxiety, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depression)—showed advanced signs of aging at age 45 when compared to others without those conditions, CNN reported.
The signs included:
Walking 11.2 centimeters per second slower.
Brain appears 2.5 years older.
Face appears four years older.
At age 11, 13, and 15, the Dunedin Study participants were assessed by pulmonary specialists and others for asthma, cigarette smoking, and obesity, Fox News reported.
According to an earlier DMHDRU statement, the biomarkers used at this point in the study included:
“Participants who had smoked daily, had obesity, or had a psychological disorder diagnosis during adolescence were biologically older at midlife compared with participants without these conditions. Participants with asthma were not biologically older at midlife compared with those without asthma,” the researchers wrote. These findings led the researchers to certain conclusions about receiving early treatments, CNN reported.
“No participants in this cohort were prescribed stimulants for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors were not yet in use for adolescent depression and anxiety during the study period. Whereas 81.1% of the adolescents with asthma received some type of treatment, which could have mitigated the implications for biological aging,” the authors wrote in their study.
“Our paper reaffirms that those are important treatments and those kinds of investments younger in the lifespan could net big benefits in terms of both health and the cost of healthcare later on as well,” Kyle Bourassa, PhD, told CNN. Bourassa is the study’s First Author and a clinical psychology researcher and advanced research fellow at the Durham VA Health Care System.
Clinical Laboratories Curate Massive Amounts of Healthcare Data
For pathologists and medical laboratory scientists, the University of Otago study is a reminder that clinical laboratories provide a critical tool to diagnostics professionals: housing, sharing, and analyzing data that contribute to precision medicine diagnoses.
The DMHDRU researchers’ findings also highlight the importance of access to common treatments offered early in life for some people to reduce risk of accelerated aging and disease.
Last-minute court injunction stopped a mass walkout, but allied health workers continue to push country’s District Health Boards for improvements
In New Zealand, the unprecedented surge in PCR COVID-19 testing due to the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant appears to have pushed the country’s 10,000 healthcare workers—including 4,000 medical laboratory scientists and technicians—to the breaking point.
On March 3, just 24 hours before the first of two walkouts was scheduled to begin, New Zealand’s Employment Court banned the strike that would have shut down medical laboratories in the country’s mixed public-private healthcare system. Medical laboratory workers make up 40% of the nation’s 10,000 healthcare workers who planned the nationwide strike to protest low pay and poor working conditions, according to 1News.
New Zealand’s Public Service Association (PSA) is the country’s largest trade union representing more than 80,000 workers across government, state-owned enterprises, local councils, health boards, and community groups.
The PSA’s 10,000 health workers (which includes 4,000 medical laboratory workers) had planned to strike on March 4-5 and March 18-19, but, according to the New Zealand Herald the Employment Court stopped the walkouts due to the rise in COVID-19-related hospitalizations.
The Herald noted, however, that PSA union members in Auckland had already postponed their walkout after county District Health Boards (DHB) expressed concern over patient safety.
“Striking has always been our last resort, and our members in Auckland continue to demonstrate their commitment to providing quality healthcare to New Zealanders by working tomorrow,” PSA Organizer Will Matthews told the Herald.
He insisted, however, that DHBs need to respond to workers’ concerns. “The depth of feeling from our members, and the support for industrial action nationwide is unprecedented,” Matthews told 1News. “We are now in a position where strike action is our only remaining option to get the DHBs and the government to listen.”
While no new strike dates have been set, Matthews said striking workers would include contact tracers and laboratory staff as well as nearly 70 other groups of healthcare workers, many of whom “don’t even earn a living wage.” According to Peoples Dispatch, allied health workers are working under the terms of a contract that expired in 2020.
The starting salary for a DHB medical laboratory scientist after completing a four-year degree is NZ$56,773 (US$39,519), while lab assistants and technicians start out at less than NZ$50,000 (US$34,804), Stuff reported.
In an interview with 1News, Taylor maintained that diagnostic labs in New Zealand have long been understaffed, undervalued, and their workers poorly treated. The COVID-19 pandemic, he says, has exacerbated an ongoing problem. Issues such as space constraints, for example, have become even more problematic.
“We’ve got extra machinery that’s come into the labs, we don’t get any more space, all these consumables sitting all over hallways and corridors, extra staff coming in to do the stuff,” Taylor told RNZ. “So, we’ve lost all our tearooms, we’ve lost all our office space, our conditions are markedly less than they should be.”
1News points out that the country’s medical laboratory scientists and technicians are processing more than 20,000 PCR COVID-19 tests per day in addition to running 120,000 other samples and 200,000 diagnostic tests. At the end of March 2020, the average number of COVID-19 tests processed per day was 1,777.
While New Zealand has preached to its citizens the need for widespread PCR testing, Taylor argued in February 2022 that the country must change its approach to offering PCR testing only to symptomatic individuals and close contacts.
“To run our diagnostic laboratories into the ground with endless irrelevant testing is a direct reflection of poor foresight, planning, and respect for the role of this critical health workforce,” Taylor told Newshub.
Necessity of Rewarding All Medical Laboratory Personnel
Medical laboratory scientist Bryan Raill is president of Apex, a specialist union of allied, scientific and technical employees. Raill told 1News the long-term solution is for the government to address pay equity, staffing levels, and worker wellbeing in the country’s historically undervalued medical laboratories.
“Medical laboratory scientists and technicians have to be fairly rewarded for the training, skill, and expertise they bring to the health system,” Raill said. “Medical laboratory scientists need a timely, fair, and equitable process to determine their worth.”
While the stresses on New Zealand medical laboratory workers are not identical, US clinical laboratory leaders will want to monitor the lengths to which New Zealand’s laboratory workers are willing to go to force improvements in their working conditions, staffing, and pay.
As the noted above, the government-funded health system is continually strapped for funds. Consequently, the health districts often defer capital investment in hospitals and medical laboratories. That is one reason why lab staff can find themselves working in space that is inadequate for the volume of specimens which need to be tested daily.
Last week involved a full slate of pathology meetings and medical laboratory site visits on both islands of New Zealand during Dark Daily’s visit to this Pacific nation
DATELINE: CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND—There’s a good case to be made that the health system in this South Pacific nation is farther down the path of medical laboratory regionalization and consolidation than most other developed nations.
A note of explanation about nomenclature will be helpful to Dark Daily’s international readers. In Australia and New Zealand, “pathology laboratory” is the common term for the medical laboratories that typically test blood, urine, saliva, and similar specimens. (In the United States and Canada, “clinical laboratory” is used interchangeably with medical laboratory.) “Histopathology” (or anatomic pathology) is the common term for labs that handle tissue specimens in New Zealand and Australia. (In North America, anatomic pathology, or surgical pathology laboratory is used more frequently than histopathology.) (more…)
Portable devices have potential to analyze DNA and produce results in the field in minutes to hours, eliminating the need to return to a medical laboratory to analyze samples
Pathologists continue to hear about research efforts to create small devices that can perform DNA analysis. In the past year, four research organizations, including one in the United States, one in New Zealand, and two in the U.K., have unveiled several devices that will analyze DNA in the field.
This line of research is of particular interest in developing countries where resources such as electricity for refrigeration are scarce. Some of the DNA testing devices will produce results in minutes to hours, eliminating the need to return to a clinical laboratory to analyze samples.
Mobile Medical Laboratory Designed to Fit in a Pocket(more…)