The UK Department of Health has published a review of progress made in the development of genetics services in the UK since the publication of its 2003 White Paper, entitled 'Our inheritance, our future - realising the potential of genetics in the NHS'. The document laid out new measures for strengthening existing genetics services, and for incorporating new genetic technology into other areas of healthcare.
The Department of Health's Chief Scientist and Director General for Health Improvement and Protection, Professor David Harper, said: 'The review allowed us to learn more from stakeholders about the state of genetics science now, its potential within healthcare, and what future priorities might be - both for government and within other sectors'.
On aim of the White Paper was to prepare the NHS for the increasing use of genetic knowledge in medicine, and to establish the National Genetics Education Centre to ensure that all healthcare professionals have an understanding of the role of genetics in the care they provide. Another key achievement was the establishment of the UK Genetic Testing Network, which aims to evaluate new genetic tests and ensure equitable access to genetic testing services. According to the Clinical Genetics Society, the Network is 'the envy of Europe'.
Other developments include the implementation of national newborn screening programmes for the genetic conditions cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease, which are expected to identify 250 and 300 affected babies respectively every year. Early diagnosis of these serious disorders will enable prompt and more effective treatment.
The report found that almost two thirds of genetic test results are being reported in the timeframes set out in the White Paper, which recommended that urgent test results should be reported within three days. Non-urgent test results should be reported within 2-8 weeks, depending on whether the particular genetic change being tested for is previously known.
The review sought the views of over 50 stakeholders, scientists, professional and patient groups, who identified several key areas requiring further development - including the ethical issues raised by genetic testing; the need for genetics education to be incorporated into professional education; and greater access to information on genetic conditions for healthcare professionals.
Public Health Minister Dawn Primarolo said: 'When the genetics White Paper was launched, we were talking about realising the potential of genetics in the NHS. Five years on, thanks to record investment from government and the dedication of scientists and our health workers, thousands of patients have benefited from advances in genetics'. However, the review also recognises that genetics is a relatively new area of work, and that developments will require sustained support.
Dr Jess Buxton is Contributing Editor at BioNews and a Trustee at the charity that publishes it, the Progress Educational Trust (PET). She is co-author of The Rough Guide to Genes and Cloning (buy this book from Amazon UK) and Human Fertilisation and Embryology: Reproducing Regulation (buy this book from Amazon UK).