Virtual wards, 3D eye scanners and at-home antibiotic kits are among the new initiatives to be trialled as part of a multimillion-pound effort to tackle lengthy waiting lists in the NHS.
Funding of £160 million has been announced by NHS England to aid the health service’s recovery after the pandemic.
Figures last month revealed the number of people in England waiting to begin hospital treatment had risen to a new record.
A total of 4.7 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of February – the highest figure since records began in August 2007.
It comes as research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Harvard University and Imperial College London showed there were 2.9 million fewer planned admissions, 1.2 million fewer non-Covid-related emergency inpatient admissions and 17.1 million fewer outpatient appointments between March and December 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.
NHS England said indicators suggest operations and other elective activity were at four-fifths of pre-pandemic levels in April, which is “well ahead” of the 70% threshold set out in official guidance.
It said it is working to speed up the health service’s recovery by trialling new ways of working in 12 areas and five specialist children’s hospitals.
The so-called “elective accelerators” will each get some of the £160 million as well as extra support for new ways to increase the number of elective operations, NHS England said.
Tens of thousands of patients in the trial areas will be part of initiatives including a high-volume cataract service, one-stop testing facilities and pop-up clinics to allow patients to be seen and discharged closer to home.
Other trials over the next three months include virtual wards and home assessments, 3D eye scanners, at-home antibiotic kits, “pre-hab” for patients ahead of surgery, artificial intelligence in GP surgeries and so-called “Super Saturday” clinics, bringing multi-disciplinary teams together at the weekend to offer more specialist appointments.
Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief operating officer, said: “With Covid cases in hospitals now significantly reducing thanks to the extraordinary success of the NHS vaccination programme, our focus is now on rapidly recovering routine services.
“Early figures show local teams are already well ahead of schedule, but we want to go further, faster, which is why we are investing £160 million to find new ways to tackle waiting lists.
“The additional support announced today will help us create a blueprint for continuing that progress over summer and beyond, in a way that doesn’t heap extra pressure on staff, so that as many people as possible benefit from the world-class care the NHS provides.”
Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, said lengthy waiting times have been a “worry” for patients and welcomed the initiative.
She said: “The importance of treatment being timely, to ensure the best possible outcomes, is well recognised.
“Effective communication with patients at this critical juncture is also essential, and we have been pleased to work with NHS England on developing principles for effective communication with patients about their elective treatment.”
A recent report by the British Medical Association estimated it will cost £4 billion to clear the backlog of patients in England in need of elective care, its council chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said.
He added: “So to trumpet a cash boost of £160 million is wholly disingenuous.”
He said the idea of “Super Saturday” clinics showed “a grave lack of understanding of the rocketing workload and demand already facing GPs”.
He said: “What we need to see is a workable plan that sufficiently supports the needs of the health service as a whole, and it is imperative that the allocation of funding and resources is reasonable and caters to the needs of primary, secondary and community care – all of whom have been completely stretched in the past year.
“Importantly, this must be underpinned by ongoing efforts to expand the medical workforce and to ensure that the utmost is done to retain doctors and NHS staff and give them enough support through the challenging time ahead.”
– The full list of the NHS Integrated Care Systems to receive funding between £10 million and £20 million is: South Yorkshire & Bassetlaw; North East & Cumbria; Lancashire and South Cumbria; Coventry and Warwickshire; Nottinghamshire; Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes; Suffolk & North East Essex; North Central London; Surrey Heartlands; Hampshire & Isle of Wight; Devon; Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire.
NHS England said a coalition of specialist children’s hospitals, led by Birmingham Women’s and Children’s Hospital Trust, will work together to improve paediatric services, including Alder Hey, Sheffield Children’s, Royal Manchester Children’s and Great Ormond Street.
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