15 Apr Could the Age of Diagnostics Be Closer Than We Think?
It is just over a year to the day since Matt Hancock set out his five-point plan to ramp coronavirus tests up to 100,000 per day. Part of this involved building ‘in a short space of time, the large diagnostics industry that this country currently lacks’.
Fast forward a year, and the UK is conducting over 730,000 tests per day and testing is set to remain a critical part of the UK’s COVID strategy moving forward.
However, having built this testing empire, it is less clear what will happen to it in the long term. A conversation currently high on the Government’s agenda is what will happen, for example, to the Lighthouse Lab network. Should the vaccine programme continue to be as successful, the UK will not need to perform nearly as many coronavirus tests in the future as it did during the peak, and Matt Hancock has previously stated that he wants to keep the capacity as part of the annual fight against respiratory viruses such as flu.
One option might be to use the Lighthouse Labs to support community diagnostic hubs. These one-stop diagnostic shops were recommended in the Sir Mike Richards’ diagnostics report, commissioned by NHS England initially as part of the Long Term Plan to improve the delivery and capacity of cancer screening programmes.
However, it has become clear that attention on diagnostics capacity across the board is needed, given the enormous pressure put on diagnostic services throughout the pandemic. Community diagnostic hubs may now offer the opportunity to provide a range of diagnostic services away from hospital, increasing capacity and enabling more patients to receive results and treatment quicker.
Whilst there remain practical questions about community diagnostic hubs, for example on how they will be staffed, there is no question that diagnostics are on the NHS’ radar. The Health Foundation recently found that 6 million fewer people were referred for a diagnostic test or treatment in 2020 compared to the previous year, a population roughly the size of the West Midlands .
Having patients diagnosed quickly will be absolutely vital in managing the waiting list backlog in the NHS and eventually reducing it. As work goes into tackling the backlog, improving diagnostic pathways and ensuring access to new and existing diagnostics must be part of the solution to support throughput and productivity.
The sum of these parts points to a future in which diagnostics are at the forefront of health and society. A new focus on diagnostics from the NHS, coupled with Matt Hancock’s vision to make the UK a diagnostics powerhouse provides incentives for industry to innovate and promises accurate and quicker treatment for patients.
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