News round-up (17 November 2023)

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16th November 2023 about a 7 minute read

This week sees artificial intelligence (AI) being put to good use, with the NHS piloting a scheme to identify patients at high risk of ending up in hospital so that measures can be put in place to help them. Another study shows that AI could predict whether someone is at risk of a heart attack up to 10 years in the future. Prevention is also a theme in two other stories, with a recommendation that all children should be given the chickenpox vaccine, and a prediction from the NHS England chief executive that cervical cancer could be eliminated by 2040.

AI to help cut hospital winter admissions

The NHS is to use artificial intelligence (AI) to identify patients at higher risk of ending up in hospital, and put in measures to prevent them doing so.

The pilot schemes will use AI to scour patient records and pinpoint people most likely to experience a deterioration in their health, so that they can be offered early support. The technology will identify, for example, patients who have had previous falls, or who have a condition such as heart failure that needs closer management.

The patients identified by the technology will be contacted by GPs, nurses and health coaches, who will check up on them, and offer medication reviews, assessments of home safety and links to voluntary groups.

Amanda Pritchard, the chief executive of NHS England, said the plans aim to make sure that more people can receive care in comfort at home while also relieving winter pressures on hospitals.

NHS advised to give all children chickenpox jab

All children in the UK should be given a chickenpox vaccine at 12 months and then at 18 months, according to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

The routine immunisations administered to babies and children do not currently include chicken pox, and parents who want their children to have the chicken pox jab have to pay privately for it.

The JCVI has also recommended a temporary catch-up programme for slightly older children who miss out on the initial rollout.

The number of chickenpox cases dropped during the Covid pandemic, which means there is currently a larger pool of children than usual who are unprotected against the highly contagious virus.

Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam from the UK Health Security Agency said: “The JCVI’s recommendations will help make chickenpox a problem of the past and bring the UK into line with a number of other countries that have well-established programmes.”

It is now up to the government to decide whether to accept the recommendation.

Deaths from antibiotic-resistant infections surge

The number of deaths caused by infections resistant to antibiotics surged in 2022 for the second year in a row.

Last year, there were 2,202 deaths, an increase of 92 on the previous year, while infection rates rose from 55,792 to 58,224.

In 2020, the number of deaths hit a low of 2,066, as lockdown measures to prevent the spread of Covid also reduced the transmission of other infections. They went up again in 2021 and 2022 as people returned to their normal behaviour. The number of deaths remained lower than before the pandemic, however – in 2019 there were more than 2,300 deaths from antibiotic-infections.

Dame Jenny Harries, the chief executive at the UK Health Security Agency, said: “Antimicrobial resistance is not a crisis of the future, but one that is very much with us right now.” She said that, without action, “our ability to drive down infections will decrease” and that we must “treat antibiotics with respect and they will be there to help us all in the future”.

NHS England promises to eliminate cervical cancer by 2040

Cervical cancer will be eliminated by 2040, the NHS in England says.

Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, has said that improved rates of vaccination and screening mean that within two decades we will reach a point where almost no one develops cervical cancer.

Currently, about 2,600 women a year in England are diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Pritchard has said the NHS should learn from what worked during the Covid pandemic and offer catch-up vaccinations in community settings, such as libraries, halls and sports venues in areas with particularly low uptake. This is already happening in some places. About 86% of girls and 81% of boys in England are receiving the HPV vaccine, which protects against the virus that causes 99% of cervical cancers.

Pritchard said that improvements will be made to the NHS app to make it easier for people to check on their vaccination history and book appointments.

AI could be used to predict heart attack risk 10 years ahead, study finds

Artificial intelligence (AI) could be used to predict if a person is at risk of having a heart attack up to 10 years in the future, a study by the University of Oxford has found.

Researchers said that the technology could save thousands of lives while improving treatment for almost half of patients.

The study looked at how AI might improve the accuracy of cardiac CT scans, which are used to detect blockages or narrowing in the arteries.

About 350,000 people in the UK have a CT scan each year but, according to the British Heart Foundation, many patients later die of heart attacks because the scans fail to pick up small, undetectable narrowings in the arteries.

Researchers analysed the data of more than 40,000 patients undergoing routine cardiac CT scans at eight UK hospitals, with a median follow-up time of 2.7 years. The AI tool was tested on a further 3,393 patients over almost eight years and was able to accurately predict the risk of a heart attack. AI-generated risk scores were then presented to doctors for 744 patients, with 45% having their treatment plans altered as a result.

Cystic fibrosis drugs licensed for toddlers

Highly effective cystic fibrosis drugs, which the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) says are too expensive for the NHS, have been licensed for use in children from the age of two.

Draft recommendations by NICE said that three new cystic fibrosis drugs for the condition are not cost-effective and should not be funded on the NHS for future patients. NICE said that any patient who is already on the drugs ahead of a final decision will remain on them.

One of the drugs, Kaftrio, has up till now only been licensed for those aged six and over. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), however, has licensed the drugs for much younger children, from the age of two.

The NHS authorised the use of Kaftrio for children aged six and over in 2020, with health officials later describing it as “miracle” treatment. Research suggests the drugs can offer patients extra decades of life, with one study finding that Kaftrio can extend life by an average of 33 years.

The draft guidance by Nice is now open to a consultation which runs until Nov 24.

Call for EU to investigate psychedelics to treat mental illness

Psychedelic therapies have the potential to significantly improve treatment of mental health disorders, a group of MEPs has said.

The MEPs are calling for the EU to offer greater support to researchers and set out pathways for their regulatory approval.

Currently the EU parliament’s public health committee is considering a proposal to reform the EU’s pharmaceutical legislation. MEPs in a cross-party action group are pushing for consideration of psychedelics such as MDMA to be licensed for treating mental illness. Although psychedelic drugs are illegal in most of Europe, a  growing body of research suggests they have significant potential for managing mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, alcoholism and anorexia, when used in a prescribed setting in combination with psychotherapy.

Centre for Mental Health updates five-year strategy on mental health

The Centre for Mental Health, a charity, has updated its five-year strategy, originally published in 2021, setting out its ambitions for mental health policy. The ambitions include: securing a whole government long-term approach to mental health; addressing the unequal determinants of mental health; enabling every child and young person to have a mentally healthy start in life; ensuring everyone gets equitable and timely support; and addressing inequalities in specific communities which have been previously overlooked.

The revised strategy redoubles the charity’s efforts to tackle the determinants of mental health, addressing structural barriers including racism and poverty, as well as continuing to work for better mental health services.