News round-up (29 September 2023)

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29th September 2023 about a 6 minute read

As we enter the season of winter bugs, a new dashboard has been launched to track outbreaks of viruses such as Covid and flu. For those concerned about the new Covid variant there is some good news, as academics have suggested that the incidence of long Covid may have been exaggerated. The NHS continues to struggle with staff shortages and workload, with some pregnant women experiencing delays of up to five days for planned induction of labour.

New Covid and flu dashboard launched in England

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has launched a new dashboard in England for tracking outbreaks of winter viruses such as Covid and flu.

The plan is to update the dashboard every Thursday. Initially it will show data at a national level, but the aim is to include regional data at a later date.

In recent weeks, the number of Covid patients in hospital has been rising, probably a consequence of the emergency of a new variant, BA.2.86. The rollout of autumn Covid jabs to protect the most vulnerable groups was been brought forward to early September.

Professor Steven Riley, director general of data, analytics and surveillance at the UKHSA, said it was vital to provide information on winter viruses “in a timely and transparent way”.

He asked the public to contribute to the data: “While our new dashboard will initially focus on respiratory diseases, we will look to expand the information we publish constantly, and we would therefore appreciate your feedback on what you would like to see going forward.”

Radiologists do better than AI at diagnosing lung disease

Research in Denmark has found that radiologists were more successful at diagnosing lung disease from X-rays than artificial intelligence (AI) tools.

The researchers compared the performance of four commercially available AI tools with 72 radiologists. They were asked to look for three common lung diseases in more than 2,000 adult chest X-rays taken between 2020 and 2022 at four Danish hospitals. The patients had an average age of 72, and about a third of the X-rays showed signs of at least one of the diseases.

The study found that AI tools picked up between 72 and 91% of cases of airspace disease, a chest x-ray pattern that can be caused by conditions including pneumonia. They picked up between 63 and 90% of pneumothorax, and between 62 and 95% of pleural effusion, a build-up of water around the lungs.

The AI software “showed moderate to high sensitivity comparable to radiologists” in detecting the diseases, according to Dr Louis Plesner, the lead researcher. They produced more false positive results, however, including predicting airspace disease where none was present five to six out of 10 times.  Plesner said most studies of AI tools evaluated their ability to identify or rule out a single disease, whereas in real life patients often turned up with two or more problems.

Staff shortages force pregnant women to wait up to five days to be induced

Pregnant women are having their induction delayed by up to five days because maternity units are short staffed, an investigation has found.

The concerns related to 10 hospitals, seven of which have been issued with warnings from the Care Quality Commission (CQC) since last year.

In some cases, women who were classed as “high risk” were forced to wait as long as five days for induction, without evidence that risks were being assessed. In other cases, women waited more than 48 hours to be transferred to the delivery suite after the process had been started.

Some of the delays were identified in CQC reports, while others were found in board papers analysed by HSJ. Carolyn Jenkinson, CQC deputy director of secondary and specialist healthcare, told the publication: “At some maternity services we’ve found women having to wait long periods of time to be induced or for transfer to a labour ward once the induction process has started, and in some cases a lack of effective monitoring during periods of delay.”

Long Covid risks have been ‘exaggerated,’ academics claim

The risks of developing long Covid may have been exaggerated by flawed research, academics have said.

Most people who contract Covid-19 feel better within days or weeks, but for some people symptoms can last longer than 12 weeks, a phenomenon known as long Covid. Symptoms include fatigue, brain fog, chest pain and shortness of breath.

An analysis by researchers in the UK, Denmark and the US, however, suggests there are “major flaws” in the literature on long Covid, and these flaws have probably exaggerated the likelihood of people developing it.

The problems include “overly broad definitions, lack of control groups, inappropriate control groups, and other methodological flaws,” the researchers said, in a paper published in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine. “In general, in the scientific literature, imprecise definitions have resulted in more than 200 symptoms being associated with the condition termed long Covid,” they said.

Feminist approach’ to cancer could save 800,000 lives a year

Some health experts have called for a “feminist approach” to cancer to eliminate inequality.

Research has shown that 800,000 women worldwide die needlessly from cancer every year because they are denied the best care. Cancer is one of the biggest killers of women and ranks in the top three causes of premature deaths among women in almost every country on every continent.

A report published in the Lancet, however, says that discrimination is impeding women’s ability to receive a timely diagnosis and good quality care. Based on a study of women and cancer in 85 countries, the report found unequal power dynamics were having “resounding negative impacts” on how women experience cancer prevention and treatment.

There was particular focus on “women’s cancers,” such as breast and cervical cancer, even though lung and colorectal cancer are among the top three causes of deaths from the disease, the researchers said.

£480m data system ‘critical for NHS’s future’, says NHSE England director

A federated data platform that NHS England intends to purchase is “absolutely critical for the future of the NHS”, its new national director for transformation, Vin Diwakar, has said.

Speaking at the HETT conference in London on Tuesday, Diwakar called on critics to “remember the transformational impact it will have for patients and staff” and said that the platform “will transform the way that we use data to improve the experience of patients and the experience of staff within the NHS, reducing the administrative burden and making it easier to do their job.”

NHS England will shortly announce the preferred bidder for the project, which is costing £480m. HSJ has reported that Palantir and Quantexa are thought to be the two frontrunners. Campaigners and politicians have raised concerns about data protection and privacy, however, while the National Data Guardian has said that NHS England has not been transparent enough abouts its decision-making process for the procurement.

Addressing these concerns, Diwakar said that the platform would “remain under the full control of the NHS. The eventual supplier will not control the data. Each [integrated care board] and trust will have access to their own source of the data.”