Significant government attention and investment in diagnostics is very much welcome. But it is vital we do not merely ‘catch up’ and in doing so reinforce a system that was already inadequate.
Government and industry have an opportunity to revolutionise diagnostics in the UK: it’s time to take it.
In the UK government’s 2021 budget, they committed to spending an additional £248m over the next two years to digitise diagnostics. Its aim is to drive efficiency, save staff time and tackle the care backlog which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The government’s focus on increasing investment in our health service is essential to helping us live with the COVID-19 virus and get the NHS back on its feet.
However, even before the pandemic hit, diagnostics backlogs were growing longer, while demand for NHS tests was skyrocketing. We must now look forward and invest in the innovative technology that will prevent us from finding ourselves back in this position again.
What does ‘build back better’ mean for NHS diagnostics?
The news of the government’s investment in the NHS – the highest real-term capital budget for the health service since 2010 – is welcome. It was also promising to see the Prime Minister signalling his intent to partner with industry by investing in novel technologies to ‘build back better’ post-pandemic.
Diagnostics in particular has been under increasing pressure to ramp up testing in the wake of COVID-19. The Institute of Biomedical Science (IBS) estimates that in 2021, the demand and capability for molecular testing in UK pathology microbiology labs jumped from around 300,000 a year to 300,000 every single day. Unsurprisingly, diagnostic targets are now regularly missed, lab scientists are overstretched, and human error is increasing.
Read our interview with IBS CEO David Wells – Improving efficiencies in UK diagnostics: An expert’s view.
The investment that the government has committed to making in the NHS is a promising start, but ensuring it is funnelled into the right technology is critical. And, for diagnostics, no technology is more impactful than automation.
The impact of automation on diagnostics
Whilst the digitisation of diagnostics and the sharing of data is very necessary, more needs to be done to physically increase testing capacity and support exhausted scientists in pathology labs across the country. The NHS has already reaped the benefits of robotics in complex surgical procedures and is vastly expanding capacity within Trusts through IT automation. Now it’s time to bring these benefits to diagnostics.
Robotics and automation are now more efficient and cost-effective than ever before, and it is already successfully being used in the NHS. For example, HPV testing is now fully automated, reducing the number of staffed laboratories around the country from 46 to eight.
At Automata we are already working with a number of pathology labs to help them meet diagnostic challenges using automation. We do this by deploying our laboratory workflow automation system to pathology labs and covid testing facilities of all shapes and sizes that were constrained by their operating environment, whether due to space, time or manpower. Our ultimate goal is to transform patients’ lives and we believe that the automation of diagnostics can make a significant difference. Automating diagnostic processes can empower NHS labs to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to dramatically reduce the time patients are currently waiting to receive test results and begin their care journey.
If the Prime Minister and his government truly want to build the NHS back better, it is time for them to consider how robotic automation can be integrated into the healthcare system, particularly diagnostics. We cannot just settle for the status quo and we cannot use this valuable investment simply to get back to where we were. We need to actively improve the health system and future-proof it for any and all challenges.