The NHS will receive £248 million over the next year to invest in technology that will deliver more diagnostic tests, checks and scans to help provide faster diagnosis of a health condition, earlier treatment and reduce waiting lists.
The investment will reduce the administrative burden on NHS staff so they can analyse more tests, checks and scans while also reducing the turnaround time from a patient taking a test to receiving a diagnosis and then starting treatment.
Diagnostics services across the NHS will be digitalised using the latest technology to improve the way tests, images and results can be shared across computer systems in hospitals, labs and GP surgeries. It means nurses, doctors and other clinicians caring for a patient can access these results more quickly and easily, even if they are working from different settings.
The new technology will allow imaging specialists – the experts analysing a scan or x-ray and providing a diagnosis – to review high-res images remotely without needing to be in an imaging lab, 24 hours a day.
The funding will also provide a new tool to help GPs and other clinicians choose the most suitable scan for their patient based on the patient’s symptoms and medical history. This will cut inappropriate requests made to radiology departments, saving radiologists’ time and ensuring patients get the right scans at the right time.
The announcement follows the £2.3 billion investment announced at the latest Spending Review over the next three years to transform diagnostic services with at least 100 community diagnostic centres across England – helping millions of patients access earlier diagnostic tests closer to home.
GPs can refer patients to these new one-stop-shops for patients to access life-saving checks, scans and tests more quickly, leading to faster diagnosis and treatment. The centres will be staffed by a multidisciplinary team of staff including nurses and radiographers and are open seven days a week.
Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “This multi-million pound 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, reducing unnecessary administrative burden and making every taxpayer’s pound count.
“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.”
The Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) explained that funding has been earmarked to improve digital integration between computer systems involved in diagnostic pathways, as well as boosting remote radiology reporting capacity. A portion of the money is also paying for an initial wave of English hospital Trusts and GP surgeries to use the the RCR’s iRefer Clinical Decision Support system, created in partnership with medical software experts MedCurrent.
The tool incorporates the RCR’s iRefer guidelines – a comprehensive, routinely updated series of clinical guidelines which help GPs and other referrers determine the best type of scan to request for a patient – into an integrated software package used to request hospital scans. Pilot programmes have shown that the software cuts unnecessary requests for scans in busy emergency departments by at least 15%.
RCR President, Dr Jeanette Dickson, commented: “Various NHS-commissioned reports have recommended the use of iRefer to help speed up referrals and vetting and ensure patients have the right imaging test first time round. We know our clinical decision support tool works, and it is fantastic news that GPs and Trusts across England will soon be able to access it.
“Meanwhile, stretched hospital imaging teams are continuing to work through scanning backlogs, and the number of patients facing long waits in England is rising again due to staffing constraints and the onset of winter pressures.
“We are extremely pleased DHSC is taking steps to support hospitals to buy in integrated radiology IT solutions and remote reporting capacity. Better IT connectivity will be crucial to the success and roll out of imaging networks and community diagnostic centres and will undoubtedly help teams work smarter, and – where possible – work through backlogs faster by supporting out-of-hours reporting and access to a specialist opinion. However, funding iRefer and improved IT connectivity alone will not solve the radiology workforce shortfall.”