News round-up (27 January 2023)

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26th January 2023 about a 5 minute read

A small piece of good news this week: the “twindemic” of Covid and flu, which placed so much stress on hospitals at the end of the last year has peaked, with numbers now falling. Waiting lists for elective procedures continue to be high, however, and the NHS is using automated software to prioritise the most urgent cases and remove those no longer needing care from the lists. Artificial intelligence continues to be used in promising ways, with a project underway to see if it can help with early detection and treatment of lung cancer.

Winter ‘twindemic’ has peaked

The pressure caused by simultaneous waves of Covid and flu, known as a “twindemic”, caused a “significant problem” for hospitals at the end of December, an NHS leader has said.

Chris Hopson, NHS England’s chief strategy officer, told the House of Commons health committee: “The issue was always going to be this winter the degree to which we saw prevalence of both Covid and flu and the degree to which they combined.”

At the turn of the year one in eight beds were occupied by patients with either Covid or flu, and there were record-long waits in A&E. Hopson added, however, that both Covid and flu peaked on 29 December, and that hospital admissions had fallen since then.

Robots to help clear waiting lists

The NHS is planning to use robots to decide who gets seen first on a waiting list.

Pilot schemes using automated calls to assess patients waiting for operations and prioritise their urgency are already underway. A successful pilot in Morecambe Bay and Preston found that 15% of those on waiting lists no longer needed the treatment they had been waiting for. One in 10 patients required more urgent care, enabling clinicians to fast-track patients.

NHS services in Worcestershire and Wye Valley have embarked on similar schemes for patients who have already waited six months, with early results showing that 10% no longer needed the appointment.

Annual mammograms could save 1,000 lives a year

Offering mammograms to women annually rather than every three years could save 1,000 lives a year, Lesley Regan, the government’s women’s health tsar, has said.

Regan said that the current system of screening women aged 50 to 70 once every three years was “not based on scientific evidence”.

The UK’s breast screening programme has the longest gap between screens in the world. In the US, it is every one or two years, and in Europe, it is every two years. Recent studies, Regan said, showed that annual mammograms could save significant numbers of lives.

New AI project launched to improve lung cancer detection

The pharma company AstraZeneca Oncology UK has partnered with technology company Clinithink to launch a new project using artificial intelligence (AI) to identify patients with early stage lung cancer.

The aim of the project is to flag patients who could benefit from lung disease screening, enabling people with the condition to receive earlier diagnosis and treatment. As well as potentially improving the outcome for patients, it would also reduce costs for the NHS.

The first stage of the project will entail carrying out a retrospective analysis of patients’ unstructured electronic medical records to determine if it’s possible and cost-effective to use the AI technology. If it is found to be cost-effective and scalable, the team will develop a prospective model later this year to test its effectiveness in the real world.

New A&E target described as ‘extremely unambitious’

A new national target to see 76% of A&E patients within four hours by March 2024 has been described as “extremely unambitious” by Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine.

Boyle also told the Commons health and social care committee that the target could drive “perverse incentives” for some emergency department managers. “It’s going to encourage managers and senior clinicians just to focus on people who can be discharged from hospital, without dealing with our problem, which is exit block [people who cannot be admitted as wards are full],” Boyle said.

For many years, the target was to see 95% of A&E patients within four hours. Although it has never been formally dropped, it has not been met since 2015.

Stillbirth rate for Black babies is twice as high as that for white babies

The stillbirth rate of Black babies in England and Wales is almost twice that of white babies, with families from mixed and multiple ethnic groups registering the highest increase in stillbirths, new figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reveal.

In 2021, the death rate of Black babies before or during birth was 6.9 stillbirths per 1,000 births, compared with 3.6 per 1,000 white babies. The overall stillbirth rate had been declining since 2007 but increased between 2020 and 2021 in every category except the Asian group. Those from mixed or multiple ethnic groups registered the highest rise.

The ONS data also shows that Black women have the highest proportion of babies born before the 37th week of pregnancy.