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Newborn screening (NBS) identifies infants with severe, early-onset diseases, enabling early diagnosis and treatment. In Canada, decisions regarding disease inclusion in NBS programs occur at the provincial level, which leads to variability in patient care. We aimed to determine whether important differences exist in NBS programs across provinces and territories. Given that spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is the most recent disease added to NBS programs, we hypothesized that its inclusion would show interprovincial variability and be more likely in provinces already screening for a greater number of diseases.
We conducted a cross-sectional survey of all NBS labs in Canada to understand: 1) what conditions were included in their program; 2) what genetic-based testing was performed and; 3) if SMA was included.
All NBS programs (N = 8) responded to this survey by June 2022. There was a 2.5-fold difference in the number of conditions screened (N = 14 vs N = 36) and a 9-fold difference in the number of conditions screened by gene-based testing. Only nine conditions were common to all provincial NBS programs. NBS for SMA was performed in four provinces at the time of our survey, with BC recently becoming the fifth province to add SMA to their NBS on October 1, 2022. Currently, 72% of Canadian newborns are screened for SMA at birth.
Although healthcare in Canada is universal, its decentralization gives rise to regional differences in NBS programs which creates inequity in the treatment, care, and potential outcomes of affected children across provincial jurisdictions.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is characterized by the progressive loss of motor neurons causing muscle atrophy and weakness. Nusinersen, the first effective SMA therapy was approved by Health Canada in June 2017 and has been added to the provincial formulary of all but one Canadian province. Access to this effective therapy has triggered the inclusion of SMA in an increasing number of Newborn Screening (NBS) programs. However, the range of disease-modifying SMN2 gene copy numbers encountered in survival motor neuron 1 (SMN1)-null individuals means that neither screen-positive definition nor resulting treatment decisions can be determined by SMN1 genotype alone. We outline an approach to this challenge, one that specifically addresses the case of SMA newborns with four copies of SMN2.
To develop a standardized post-referral evaluation pathway for babies with a positive SMA NBS screen result.
An SMA NBS pilot trial in Ontario using first-tier MassARRAY and second-tier multi-ligand probe amplification (MLPA) was launched in January 2020. Prior to this, Ontario pediatric neuromuscular disease and NBS experts met to review the evidence regarding the diagnosis and treatment of children with SMA as it pertained to NBS. A post-referral evaluation algorithm was developed, outlining timelines for patient retrieval and management.
Ontario’s pilot NBS program has created a standardized path to facilitate early diagnosis of SMA and initiation of treatment. The goal is to provide timely access to those SMA infants in need of therapy to optimize motor function and prolong survival.
An improved understanding of diagnostic and treatment practices for patients with rare primary mitochondrial disorders can support benchmarking against guidelines and establish priorities for evaluative research. We aimed to describe physician care for patients with mitochondrial diseases in Canada, including variation in care.
We conducted a cross-sectional survey of Canadian physicians involved in the diagnosis and/or ongoing care of patients with mitochondrial diseases. We used snowball sampling to identify potentially eligible participants, who were contacted by mail up to five times and invited to complete a questionnaire by mail or internet. The questionnaire addressed: personal experience in providing care for mitochondrial disorders; diagnostic and treatment practices; challenges in accessing tests or treatments; and views regarding research priorities.
We received 58 survey responses (52% response rate). Most respondents (83%) reported spending 20% or less of their clinical practice time caring for patients with mitochondrial disorders. We identified important variation in diagnostic care, although assessments frequently reported as diagnostically helpful (e.g., brain magnetic resonance imaging, MRI/MR spectroscopy) were also recommended in published guidelines. Approximately half (49%) of participants would recommend “mitochondrial cocktails” for all or most patients, but we identified variation in responses regarding specific vitamins and cofactors. A majority of physicians recommended studies on the development of effective therapies as the top research priority.
While Canadian physicians’ views about diagnostic care and disease management are aligned with published recommendations, important variations in care reflect persistent areas of uncertainty and a need for empirical evidence to support and update standard protocols.
Objectives and Methods: Many authors have argued that ethical, legal, and social issues (“ELSIs”) should be explicitly integrated into health technology assessment (HTA), yet doing so poses challenges. This discussion may be particularly salient for technologies viewed as ethically complex, such as genetic screening. Here we provide a brief overview of contemporary discussions of the issues from the HTA literature. We then describe key existing policy evaluation frameworks in the fields of disease screening and public health genomics. Finally, we map the insights from the HTA literature to the policy evaluation frameworks, with discussion of the implications for HTA in genetic screening.
Results and Conclusions: A critical discussion in the HTA literature considers the definition of ELSIs in HTA, highlighting the importance of thinking beyond ELSIs as impacts of technology. Existing HTA guidance on integrating ELSIs relates to three broad approaches: literature synthesis, involvement of experts, and consideration of stakeholder values. The thirteen key policy evaluation frameworks relating to disease screening and public health genomics identified a range of ELSIs relevant to genetic screening. Beyond straightforward impacts of screening, these ELSIs require consideration of factors such as the social and political context surrounding policy decisions. The three broad approaches to addressing ELSIs described above are apparent in the screening/genomics literatures. In integrating these findings we suggest that the method chosen for addressing ELSIs in HTA for genetic screening may determine which ELSIs are prioritized; and that an important challenge is the lack of guidance for evaluating such methods.
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