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Health Minister Robin Swann has marked International Pathology Day by stating his commitment to delivering a modern, sustainable, world-class pathology service in Northern Ireland.

Health and Social Care pathology services underpin all HSC clinical services, providing a range of diagnostics within the laboratory setting, with an estimated 70-80% of patient diagnoses and around 95% of all clinical pathways depending on a pathology result.

The Minister has today published a Departmental Policy Statement on Transforming HSC pathology services which sets out plans for modernising pathology services in the region, including the ‘Blueprint Programme’ to explore options for regionalising pathology management services.

Minister Swann said: “I wish to mark the occasion of International Pathology Day by putting on record my vision for the delivery of modern, sustainable, world-class pathology services for Northern Ireland. My department is preparing to commence a  programme of work in 2022 to produce a detailed blueprint for moving to a single, regional HSC pathology service management structure, which works in partnership with other HSC organisations, is supported by modern information systems and infrastructure and which works more efficiently and effectively to deliver patient and service user benefits.”

Pathology services in Northern Ireland cost around £100m to deliver each year and employ over 1,100 staff, providing a 24/7 service and carrying out more than 40m diagnostic tests across the region.

Minster Swann continued “Pathology services are critical to our health service and the dedication and hard work of our regional pathology workforce in Northern Ireland is second to none. I want show my appreciation of that workforce by delivering a modern, agile and innovative pathology service to be proud of and which is fully equipped to respond to the healthcare needs of our population both now and in the future.”

To further demonstrate his commitment to pathology services here, the Minister is also pleased to announce that a new innovative digital pathology system has recently gone live in laboratory sites across Northern Ireland.

The Minister continued: “These programmes will go hand in hand with the Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) which I launched at the Ulster Hospital in September. The addition of a new digital pathology solution in labs across the region is a further example of pathology transformation in practice. I wish to congratulate all those involved in this tremendous achievement which will revolutionise pathology working practices and is another significant step on the journey to implementing a world class digital healthcare service for Northern Ireland.”

Northern Ireland is an early adopter of digital pathology and the first in the UK to implement this as an enterprise imaging service to include radiology and digital pathology within the same system, providing benefits to patients, staff and the wider service. Benefits include a single regional view of all histopathology imaging accessible from anywhere within the HSC, faster and more accurate measurements and quantifications, digital enhancement of image features and improved training and research capability.

Dr Clare McGalie, who is responsible for the Digital Pathology Project said; “My colleagues and I across the region and within the Pathology Network and BSO ITS welcome this commitment to support pathology services. I also wish to thank the Health Minister for raising the profile of our Digital Pathology Project.  Digital pathology allows for new ways of working that will lead to a more sustainable pathology service and enable further transformation. Through this project, all four cellular pathology laboratories in Northern Ireland are now united by a single digital pathology solution which makes case review and preparation for multidisciplinary meetings much more efficient, ultimately improving the quality of patient care.”

Reform of Northern Ireland pathology services was recognised as a Departmental transformation priority in the 2016 strategy document Health and Wellbeing 2026 – Delivering Together. Since then, the Department has been working with the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) and the Pathology Network NI on a programme of comprehensive reforms to management structures, information systems and service delivery to modernise pathology services. A consultation in 2016 noted that laboratory tests underpin the vast majority of patient diagnoses, and that demand will grow as HSC services respond to the needs of an ageing population, advances in cancer medicine, and the spread of genetic testing and precision medicine. However, the global pandemic put these transformation plans temporarily on hold. COVID-19 has placed further unprecedented demands on HSC pathology services, which are primarily responsible for providing the Pillar 1 SARS-CoV-2 testing response in Northern Ireland.

In conclusion, the Minister said: “Efficiently managed, well-resourced and modern pathology services are vital to the ongoing effective delivery of the COVID-19 testing strategy and are a key enabler to the success of HSC Rebuild Plans and service transformation priorities, including the Elective Care Framework and the Cancer Strategy. Reform of pathology services also presents an opportunity to generate significant savings for reinvestment, in order to equip these vital services to continue to underpin our HSC system for the future.”

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