Prof. Wendy Stevens of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) and University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, recently spoke with ASLM about her role as the ASLM2016 conference co-chair and her hopes for the future of laboratory medicine in Africa.

“Strong laboratory networks coupled with good surveillance strategies are needed to combat global health threats.” – Prof. Stevens

Why are laboratories important to strong national health systems?

Laboratories are critical and contribute to patient care directly in at least 70% of clinical cases. Strong laboratory networks that focus on quality assurance, training, equipment maintenance, supplier distribution, costing and modelling, data collection and the determination of the impact of interventions are likely to remain sustainable into the future. The supporting structures are frequently more important for ensuring success than the current focus on technology alone. New innovations in technology, at point-of care and at the other spectrum on high throughput, highly automated analysers make the construction of a national tiered laboratory system feasible to ensure national diagnostic coverage. Innovations in information technology used for connectivity to ensure the continuous monitoring of quality and the distribution of results is gaining greater momentum in the region. Cloud-based surveillance and the strengths of this type of data collection have become evident in the recent outbreaks of infectious diseases threatening global health security. Strong laboratory networks coupled with good surveillance strategies are needed to combat global health threats.

What are the major challenges for healthcare capacity building in Africa?

Major challenges include funding, particularly a great dependence on donor funding. The supporting pillars for using new technologies are frequently absent or fragmented in nature. Insufficient training and the lack of enough appropriately skilled individuals compound the problem. The insertion of a new technology frequently requires the need for development of complex clinical algorithms that both laboratory and clinical staff need to understand.

The ASLM has the capacity and skill sets drawn from centres of excellence across the continent and abroad to increase the training of laboratory professionals, provide guidance for quality assurance, assist with network design and implementation. There is only recent recognition that implementation of national diagnostic platforms is a science and operational research in this arena is critical.

What role does ASLM and the ASLM2016 conference have in addressing these challenges?

My expectation for the conference is that there are numerous training opportunities for young laboratory professionals in understanding the requirements for developing a sustainable laboratory network and how powerful this can be in contributing to appropriate health-care and decision-making. The ASLM2016 conference will identify current global health threats and the contribution laboratories can make in accelerating the development of solutions. Communicable diseases and the development of antimicrobial resistance is just one of the areas to be addressed. Infection control at all levels of the healthcare system is particularly important in the face of emerging infections, haemorrhagic diseases and MDR/XDR TB, to name a few. However, it is hoped that there is some introduction to non-communicable diseases such as cancer and diabetes where diagnostic skills are weak across the continent. My final desire is that the special diagnostic needs of vulnerable populations where MDG goals will not be met are discussed, including paediatric populations, pregnant women, mining communities and those incarcerated.

What are your expectations for the ASLM2016 conference, and what will stakeholders gain from attending?

The aim is to attract all stakeholders to such a forum to ensure on-going dialogue between the young or experienced laboratory professionals, clinicians to bridge the clinical-laboratory interface, donors to understand the needs and suppliers to expose the audience to the rapid expansion of new technologies. In addition, there is a personal desire to introduce cadres of staff not traditionally associated with laboratory planning to highlight the increasingly important role in the future such as the health economist, the biomedical engineer, the bio-repository specialist.

Click here to access the complete biography of Prof. Stevens.