Hepatitis C (HCV) — a potentially life-threatening virus that infects 1.5 million new people around the world every year — is highly treatable if diagnosed early.
Unfortunately, access to quality screening is far from universal. Countries like Egypt — one of the countries with the highest prevalence of HCV in the world — demonstrate the impact screening can have. In 2015, HCV was prevalent in an estimated 7 percent of the country’s population and accounted for 7.6 percent of the country’s mortality, presenting a significant health care and societal burden.
But since then, Egypt has turned a corner. In 2018, the Egyptian Ministry of Health and Population launched a massive nationwide HCV screening and treatment campaign as part of its 2014-2018 HCV action plan. The campaign’s results were inspiring: by July 2020, Egypt had screened more than 60 million people and treated 4 million residents. Today, Egypt is set to be the world’s first country to eliminate HCV within its borders.
The results of Egypt’s HCV screening program speak to diagnostics’ power in contributing to improved health outcomes around the world. Among the essential components of any health system is the capacity for prevention, which includes timely screening and detection. But a preventive approach based on timely diagnosis won’t work without the right infrastructure in place.
The World Health Organization (WHO) highlights the critical role well-functioning laboratory services play in health systems with good reason. Around the world, clinicians increasingly rely on laboratory tests for diagnostic and treatment decisions. These tests help them make more informed decisions that result in better care and potentially improved outcomes for patients.
Two key challenges facing laboratory systems today are underfunding and insufficient resources. Despite their central importance, laboratories struggle to garner the political and financial support they need to be as effective as possible. For example, it’s estimated that while lab results drive approximately 70 percent of clinical decision making, laboratories make up only 5 percent of hospital costs.
What’s needed is a political commitment to provide everyone with access to accurate and timely diagnosis that paves the way to effective treatment and health. And putting this commitment into practice can only be achieved and sustained through coordinated multistakeholder efforts and public—private partnerships. This is not just a worthwhile investment for patients, but also the wider health care system in the long run. After all, it’s the health care systems with strong, resilient labs that will be best placed to manage future pandemics and ever-growing health threats like heart disease and dementia.
Another challenge is the health care workforce. Effective use of diagnostics requires qualified people to drive it, with expertise in pathology and laboratory medicine. Yet the world currently faces a laboratory staffing shortage. For diagnostics in particular, baccalaureate degree programs in laboratory science have previously been on the ‘endangered list’ of allied health professions. In the end, inadequately trained staff, frequent turnover and scheduling problems all make quality lab results more difficult to guarantee.
And that’s not all: inadequate infrastructure and staffing shortages are more present in low-income, rural communities, which exacerbate the broader diagnostics gap troubling global health care today. Many low-income countries lack an integrated laboratory network that can fully provide high-quality, accessible and efficient laboratory testing services for the entire population. In fact, a commission convened by The Lancet concluded that 81 percent of these populations have little or no access to diagnostics.
Put simply, innovative diagnostics are only meaningful if they reach people where and when they’re needed. Advancing this equity is at the heart of the WHO’s vision for Universal Health Coverage (UHC) by 2030. The goal? To guarantee all people have access to high-quality services for their health and the health of their families and communities, without facing financial hardship.
This UHC ambition is only possible when backed by a network of strong laboratories that help ensure individuals can access high-quality diagnostics services without financial burden in all health care systems. To do this, UHC should explicitly include diagnostics services. Financially, it’s savings from screening, early diagnosis and targeted treatment that make UHC feasible. Health care systems will have to undergo a systemic shift from focusing on treatment to focusing on prevention. And that’s just not possible when clinicians don’t have access to fast, accurate and cost-efficient lab results to inform their clinical decision-making. Policies and regulations that safeguard UHC goals of access and health equity are essential to make progress toward UHC. The Saving Access to Laboratory Services Act (SALSA), in the United States, is an example of how national policies can help to ensure sustainable laboratory networks and contribute to equitable access to essential healthcare.
Stronger labs can not only help health care systems make savings in the routine management of population health; investing in them also helps to reduce costs and prepare in advance for any future public health crises.
This year has already seen encouraging progress toward achieving UHC through enhanced diagnostics capacity. The adoption of the resolution on strengthening diagnostics capacity at the World Health Assembly in May was an important signal of growing international political support for diagnostics. It was also a call to action. The next step for this month’s United Nations General Assembly and Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit is channeling political support for diagnostics into the development of an action-oriented declaration.
To put us closer to UHC, this declaration should commit to ensuring that national health plans include access to timely detection and prevention. That starts with supporting laboratory systems and establishing National Essential Diagnostics Lists that identify the most critical diagnostic tests to help diagnose patients quickly and accurately so that they can receive needed treatment. At Roche, we’re advocating that governments, industry, civil society and other policy stakeholders will come together around concrete plans and shared resources that strengthen diagnostics and the lab infrastructure that makes them effective. In line with our commitment to increase patient access to important diagnostic solutions by 2030, we plan to do our part.
 Hepatitis C. World Health Organization. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/hepatitis-c (Accessed 22.08.2023)
 Egypt’s Ambitious Strategy to Eliminate Hepatitis C Virus: A Case Study. Hassanin, A. et al. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8087425/ (Accessed 22.08.2023)
 Hepatitis C in Egypt – Past, Present, and Future. Roche Diagnostics. Available at: https://diagnostics.roche.com/global/en/article-listing/egypt-s-road-to-eliminating-hepatitis-c-virus-infection—a-stor.html (Accessed 22.08.2023)
 Monitoring the Building Blocks of Health Systems. World Health Organization. Available at: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/258734/9789241564052-eng.pdf (Accessed 14.07.2023)
 The Cost-effective Laboratory: Implementation of Economic Evaluation of Laboratory Testing. Bogavac-Stanojevic N. & Jelic-Ivanovic Z. J Med Biochem. Volume 36, Issue 3, 238 – 242. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6287218/
 Ensuring Quality Cancer Care through the Oncology Workforce: Sustaining Care in the 21st Century: Workshop Summary. National Academy of Sciences. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK215247/ (Accessed 14.07.2023)
 Essential diagnostics: mind the gap. The Lancet Global Health. Available at: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(21)00467-8/fulltext (Accessed 14.07.2023)
 Private Sector Commitments To Universal Health Coverage. UHC Private Sector Constituency 2023 Statement. https://www.uhc2030.org/fileadmin/uploads/UHC2030_Private_Sector_Commitments_Statement_April2023.pdf (Accessed 29.08.2023)