The Covid pandemic continues to make its impact felt, with hospital waiting lists in England reaching a record six million. The NHS is trying to free up hospital beds through the use of virtual wards for Covid patients, but senior doctors have warned that the model is untested and could put patients at risk. Meanwhile, private health care company Babylon continues to grow through acquisition. Its purchase of US company Higi has enabled it to add remote monitoring functionality to its portfolio.
The number of people on a hospital waiting list in England has reached six million in November for the first time, according to figures released by NHS England. Approximately five percent (307,000) have been waiting for more than a year, in most cases for routine procedures such as hip surgery. More than 18,000 have waited two years.
Almost one in three (120,000) of those admitted needing a hospital bed spent more than four hours waiting for one. Nearly 13,000 waited more than 12 hours, the highest since records began in 2010.
In December, more than a quarter of patients arriving at an emergency department waited more than four hours to be seen.
The NHS app, which launched three years ago, now has 22m users – over 18m of whom have downloaded it since the NHS Covid pass was added in May 2021. It is now the most downloaded free iPhone app in England.
Other figures released by NHS Digital show that the app is widely used. A total of 1.1 million GP appointments have been booked through the app, while it has also been used to order 10.4m repeat prescriptions – 6.2m of which were ordered in the last six months.
More than 300,000 people have registered their organ donation decision through the app, and 141m Covid passes have been generated through the app and NHS website.
The health care technology company Babylon has acquired Higi, a US-based consumer health engagement company.
It means that Babylon will now have access to remote monitoring functionality through Higi’s Smart Health Stations. These are self-service health-checking kiosks sited in grocery stores and pharmacies. Nearly three-quarters of the US population lives within five miles of a Higi station.
In 2021, the Higi network hosted 11 million sessions in which people used the remote monitoring platforms to check their health.
NHS England’s plans to expand virtual wards could put patients at risk, doctors have warned.
Before Christmas, NHS England ordered trusts to ensure a minimum of 15 per cent of hospital covid patients were treated in virtual wards. Under the virtual wards model, patients are discharged home and given oximeters that fit on their finger so they can be remotely monitored by clinical staff.
At the time NHS England announced the plans there were 7,000 Covid inpatients in English NHS hospitals. That figure had more than doubled to nearly 16,000 by 5 January.
Dr Tim Cooksley, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said that the evidence base for the virtual wards model was “light”, adding that while they had potential for the future they “simply cannot be seen as a short-term mitigation measure which can be hastily rolled out mid-pandemic”.
The government has launched the NHS Food Scanner app as part of its new Better Health campaign.
The new app enables parents to scan product barcodes on food items to generate an alternative, healthier suggestion. The government hopes it will encourage more families to swap unhealthy foods for healthy ones.
The app’s ‘Good Choice’ badge will highlight those foods that match the government’s dietary recommendations for added sugar, saturated fat and salt.
The campaign aims to help stem the increase in obesity amongst children. The NHS Digital National Child Measurement programme England 2020/2021 found that one in four children of reception school age are overweight or obese, rising to 40% for children in Year 6.