NHS gets £250m boost to accelerate digital diagnostics plan

NHS funding aimed at enabling faster detection of health conditions and reducing waiting times

The UK government has announced new funding aimed at the digitisation of diagnostics to reduce the administrative burden on the national health system, as well as turnaround times.

The £248m funding boost for 2022 is expected to support investments in technology underpinning diagnostic procedures, speed up the diagnosis of health conditions, deliver earlier treatment and reduce waiting lists.

Diagnostic services in the NHS will undergo a digital transformation using “the latest technology”, according to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). This is expected to improve remote and onsite sharing, and review of tests, images and results in hospitals, labs and GP surgeries.

According to health and social care secretary Sajid Javid, the investment “will play a big role in levelling up diagnostics services across the country, so patients can get faster results and healthcare professionals can get their job done more easily”.

“Getting a faster diagnosis for a health condition is the first step to getting more people the treatment they need and earlier on, and our funding will help ensure our NHS has access to the latest digital technology to drive up efficiency,” he said.

Under the initiatives to be introduced as part of the digital diagnostics plan, a new tool will be introduced to support GPs and other clinicians in choosing the most suitable scan for patients based on their symptoms and medical history.

According to DHSC, the digital platform will eliminate inappropriate requests made to radiology departments, while saving radiologists’ time and ensuring optimal levels of service to patients.

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The new funding for digitisation of diagnostics follows the recommendations from an independent review by Mike Richards, former chief inspector of hospitals at the Care Quality Commission and the first NHS cancer director, around the diagnostics capacity at the NHS. Among the points made in the review, improving digitisation was recommended as a priority to drive efficiency and deliver better care.

In addition, the systems underpinning the UK’s national health screening programmes need to be updated urgently to address a number of potential risks to patient safety, the report has found.

According to the report, screening programmes are based on an “over-complicated” systems setup that has issues across the critical stages of identification, management and recording of outcomes. It called for the urgent replacement of breast and cervical screening, but also found issues in the platforms supporting other programme types. A Public Accounts Committee report had previously found that screening IT in general had been unfit for purpose since 2011.

The new funding for digitisation of diagnostics follows the £2.3bn investment announced at the latest Spending Review, which will see a broader transformation of diagnostic services.

More than 1.5 billion diagnostic tests to confirm or rule out health conditions and disease and are carried out in England every year. During the Covid-19 pandemic, waiting lists have soared, with people waiting longer and longer for elective surgeries and procedures.

The digitisation of diagnostic services is seen as a key part of reducing waiting times for services focused on cancer and other conditions. In addition, 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 through technology.

Under that vision, technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual wards would be used to tackle the backlog, with £160m pumped into 12 different areas where new ways of working are being trialled. GPs would also use AI to prioritise patients who need to be seen quickly and identify the right level of care for each individual.

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