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Government relies on tech to reduce NHS waiting lists

Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid aims to reduce NHS waiting list backlog through use of virtual wards, artificial intelligence and new surgical hubs

The government plans to rely heavily on technology to reduce long NHS waiting lists and put the health service on a “sustainable footing”.

As part of the government’s £36bn investment into health and social care over the next three years, there will be a huge push in streamlining treatments and delivering an extra nine million checks, scans and operations for patients.

During the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, waiting lists have soared, with people waiting longer and longer for elective surgeries and procedures. There are currently 5.5 million people in England waiting for treatment or non-urgent surgery, and the government predicts the number could reach 13 million by the end of the year if not dealt with.

The government wants to make use of technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual wards to tackle the backlog, and is pumping £160m into 12 different areas where new ways of working are being trialled.

These includes GPs using AI to prioritise patients who need to be seen quickly and identify the right level of care for each individual.

Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid said the pandemic had presented the NHS with enormous challenges and led to a huge backlog, which could not continue.

“We are going to harness the latest technology and innovative new ways of working, such as surgical hubs, to deliver the millions more appointments, treatments and surgeries that are needed over the coming months and years to tackle waiting lists,” he said.

The plans include the use of surgical robots, which are currently being used in Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Trust to deliver complex surgery quicker with faster recovery times. Doncaster and Bassetlaw Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, meanwhile, is running a cardio drive-through service where patients receive an ECG monitoring device in their car.

The government is also setting up surgical hubs across the UK, which are currently being piloted. The hubs will fast-track certain operations. A surgical hub trial at Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, for example, has reduced the time cataract patients spend in hospital to 90 minutes, with 723 operations carried out in one week.

NHS England medical director Steve Powis said that although we will have to live with the impact of Covid-19 for “some time”, the NHS has “already made effective use of additional resources to recover services – from adopting the latest technologies to more evening and weekend working, NHS staff are going to great lengths to increase the number of operations carried out”.

“The further funding announced this week will support staff to deliver millions more vital checks, tests and operations, so if you have a health concern, please do come forward to receive the care and treatment you may need,” he said.

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