The vital role of Devon and Cornwall’s NHS laboratories in fighting COVID-19

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(Last Updated On: June 12, 2020)

The pivotal role of Devon and Cornwall’s hospital laboratories in tackling COVID-19, and in enabling the vast majority of everyday NHS treatment pathways, was highlighted yesterday (11 June 2020) as part of Biomedical Science Day.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the role of pathology – the branch of medicine that deals with the laboratory examination of samples of blood, urine and other body tissues for treatment, diagnostic or forensic purposes – into the national spotlight, with widespread focus on the importance of testing in the management of the disease.

And while the attention may be new, the essential role of pathology in modern healthcare is not. It is estimated that 70% of patient pathways – the routes patients take if they are referred for treatment by their GP or other health professional – involve pathology testing, advice and guidance on results from biological samples.

Covering Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, the Peninsula Pathology NHS Network was established in December 2017 and is made up of the region’s five acute hospital trusts, together with representatives from the NHS clinical commissioning groups and GPs.

Across the counties, the sector employs about 800 staff in roles including biomedical scientists, pathologists, clinical scientists, laboratory assistants and administrative teams, and each year reports around 35 million tests for an investment of approximately £60 million.

Since the outbreak began, the network has forged even closer links between hospital laboratories to support the fight against the disease, providing services including:

– Setting up the infrastructure to process hundreds of COVID-19 swab tests every day that tell the patient or member of staff whether they currently have the disease

– Delivering thousands of COVID-19 antibody (serology) tests in blood science laboratories that tell the patient or member of staff whether they have had the disease in the past

– Adopting new tests and new technology safely but quickly to inform the most appropriate clinical care

– Providing point of care testing in extended intensive care units and community sites, closer to patients

– Supporting planning for mortuary capacity

– Advising on pathology provision for NHS Nightingale Hospital in Exeter, which will serve the region

– Supporting an improved management of blood stocks, which have been lower than normal through the pandemic

– Supporting the reinstatement of hospital services which were suspended during the first phase of the outbreak.

The additional and varied demands have also meant adopting a flexible approach to working patterns, roles and responsibilities and developing new skills sets.

On behalf of the Peninsula Pathology NHS Network, Bruce Daniel, Pathology Service Manager at Royal Cornwall Hospital, Truro, said: “It’s really important to recognise the people who work in our services. They are unsung heroes who support doctors and nurses – they have worked tirelessly and flexibly and their commitment has been inspirational.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that the vital role laboratories play is being recognised more widely and Biomedical Science Day is a great opportunity to let people know about the expertise involved in hospital laboratory care, and celebrate our profession’s great contribution towards helping the UK get through the pandemic.”

The specialities covered by the network include clinical chemistry, haematology, blood transfusion, clinical microbiology, mortuary services, histopathology, phlebotomy and point of care testing. Biomedical Science Day is an annual awareness day hosted by the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS).

It aims to inform the public and empower patients by telling them about practices in biomedical science, and celebrate a profession that is #AtTheHeartOfHealthcare.

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