The NHS has announced £160m will be made available to ‘accelerator sites’ that support elective care, to speed up recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The investment will help develop a blueprint for elective care going forward and NHS England is also seeking to trial new ways of working in a dozen specialist areas and five children’s hospitals.
A range of new services will be trialled including virtual wards and home assessments, 3D eye scanners, at-home antibiotic kits, ‘pre-hab’ for patients about to undergo surgery, AI in GP surgeries and ‘Super Saturday’ clinics – where multi-disciplinary teams come together at the weekend to offer more specialist appointments.
Amanda Pritchard, NHS Chief Operating Officer, said: “Treating around 400,000 COVID patients over the past year has inevitably had a knock-on effect on non-urgent care, but our incredible staff still managed to perform more than two million operations and other treatments in the first two months of this year when the hospitals were at their busiest with COVID patients.
“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.”
Despite COVID-19, the NHS has continued to offer many elective care services, with over 12 million planned operations going ahead, as well as 19 million key diagnostic tests since the start of the pandemic. Treatments delivered across January and February reached over 800,000 – 70% higher than at the height of the first wave.
In the announcement NHS England said: “Early data suggests that the NHS is now recovering quicker than it did last year after the initial wave, with services now operating at 80%, whereas last year it took until September for services to reach that level again.”
Specific examples of new schemes to help alleviate waiting lists and expedite care, include:
- North London Partners ICS will extend operating hours, as well as using the independent sector, and offer patients care in newly-designed surgical hubs.
- Devon ICS is repurposing the Exeter Nightingale to perform diagnostic tests, and patients in the South West will also benefit from the extension of virtual wards, so patients can receive medical support from the comfort of their home, freeing up beds in the process so more patients can be admitted to receive elective care.
- Lancashire and South Cumbria ICS is using AI to prioritise and identify the right level of care and support needed for patients on the waiting list.
Professor Neil Mortensen, President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, added: “We welcome today’s announcement of funding for accelerator sites to explore and test new ways to get the elective backlog down. It will take both innovation and collaboration to reduce the huge waiting list that has built up over the last year.
“2020 was incredibly challenging for the NHS, but in the midst of the pressure, staff and hospitals came up with new solutions to keep urgent surgery going. Operations were scheduled at weekends, ‘surgical hubs’ were created, and groups of hospitals worked together providing ‘mutual aid’ to each other. Embedding the learnings and innovation is key to the future sustainability of surgical services.”