News round-up 23 December

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22nd December 2022 about a 6 minute read

The main news story continues to be the strike action by nurses and ambulance workers. There are no signs that the dispute is likely to be resolved, with prime minister Rishi Sunak refusing to reopen talks on pay. The NHS is also being hit by one of the biggest outbreaks of flu in recent years, with hospitalisations for flu now outnumbering those for Covid. In better news, developments in AI continue apace, with promising applications on the way that could reduce hospital admissions or detect urinary tract infections (UTI) earlier.

Sunak refuses to back down in response to strike action

The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has said he will not back down in response to strikes over pay by nurses and ambulance workers.

Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nurses (RCN), has called on Sunak to resolve the dispute before Christmas, but Sunak said that sticking to the wage levels set by the pay review boards earlier this year was an important part of tackling high inflation.

Cullen warned that if the government isn’t “prepared to do the right thing” her union would have “no choice” but to continue striking in January.

Nurses in Scotland who belong to the RCN have rejected a pay increase offer of 7.5% and are planning to strike again. The offer has been accepted by members of Unison and Unite.

Building 40 new hospitals requires doubling of construction capacity

The programme director the New Hospitals Programme (NHP), Saurabh Bhandari, has warned that England’s construction market will need to double its capacity to achieve the government’s plans to build 40 new hospitals and hospital wings.

The programme has been given a target of 2030 to deliver its goals – a combination of new hospitals, new hospital wings and refurbished community hospitals. Six projects have already been delayed by three years.

Bhandari told an industry event last week that the NHP hoped to reduce the construction time of some of the new hospitals by up to 30% by taking a standardised and collaborative approach to the projects. He said: “The manner in which we currently deliver hospitals is sometimes inefficient. Most hospitals are built as standalones – we don’t leverage scale and sometimes we miss opportunities to build long-term and successful relationships with our partners.”

Only half of new virtual beds are occupied, NHS figures show

Of the 7,000 new virtual ward beds opened under a national programme, just over half are occupied by patients, according to a report in HSJ.

Stephanie Sommerville, the NHS England (NHSE) director for community transformation, told a recent NHSE webinar that 3,602 of the 6,944 beds (52%) were occupied. She said it demonstrated that “we have a way to go to make sure our virtual wards are really well utilised. Of course, one of the big contributions to delivering more activity to our virtual wards is getting the referrals and admissions process right.” She went on: “We have a really big opportunity to increase referrals from virtual wards, in a sustainable way, across 111, 999, across care homes as well, across the acute and community team.”

The targets set in NHSE’s 2022-23 planning guidance, published in February, are to have 40 to 50 virtual beds per 100,000 population by December 2023, with £450m in funding over two years.

AI voice assistant pilot aims to reduce hospital admissions

Cera, a company that uses digital technology to enable people to receive care in their own home rather than in hospital, is piloting an artificial intelligence (AI) voice assistant, with the aim of reducing visits to A&E departments.

Patients will receive automated phone calls that ask them a series of questions to spot signs of deterioration in health. The questions, which have been medically-validated, will be analysed using machine learning tools to identify any significant changes. If it notes any deterioration, it will send an alert to carers prompting them to arrange a doctor’s appointment if necessary.

Dr Ben Maruthappu, CEO and co-founder of Cera, said: “An automated phone call could save a call to emergency services – critical when staff burnout and waiting lists are at an all-time high – by monitoring health deteriorations through smart machine learning.”

Flu hospitalisations in England soar

The number of people hospitalised with flu in England has risen by more than 40% in a week, according to an analysis of NHS data by the Daily Telegraph.

The analysis shows that hospitalisation rates for flu are eight times higher than expected at this time of year. The NHS is preparing for one of the worst flu outbreaks in recent years, the paper said.

Flu hospitalisations are so high that they have overtaken Covid admissions for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Hospitalisation rates for flu are now at 6.76 per 100,000 people in England, compared with 6.61 per 100,000 for Covid. On the current trajectory, admissions next week could pass the peak of the 2017-18 outbreak, which led to nearly 30,000 deaths.

New online tool can predict risk of prostate cancer

Scientists in Cambridge have developed a free online tool for predicting an individual’s risk of developing prostate cancer.

The application, CanRisk-Prostate, will help doctors to target testing at those most at risk, enabling them to make earlier diagnoses. It will be added to the CanRisk web tool that has already been used to make almost 1.2 million risk predictions of developing breast and ovarian cancers.

Professor Ros Eeles of the Institute of Cancer Research, said: “This is an important step forward as it will enable clinicians to have conversations with men about their individual risk of prostate cancer based on the most accurate computer model to date. This will help them in making decisions about screening.”

Artificial intelligence and robotics to help detect urinary tract infections earlier

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University are developing artificial intelligence (AI) and socially assistive robots to detect urinary tract infections (UTIs) earlier.

The FEATHER project aims to reduce the number of serious adverse outcomes resulting from late diagnosis or misdiagnosis, as well as reduce the amount of antibiotics prescribed while clinicians wait for lab results.

The research has been awarded £1.1 million from the UK Government by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation, and the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR).

UTIs affect 150 million people worldwide annually, making it one of the most common types of infection. When diagnosed early, UTIS can be treated with antibiotics, but if left untreated, they can lead to sepsis and kidney damage.