NHS rolls out capsule cameras to test for cancer

Miniature cameras which patients can swallow to get checked for cancer are being trialled across the NHS.

The imaging technology, in a capsule no bigger than a pill, can provide a diagnosis within hours.

Known as a colon capsule endoscopy, the cameras are the latest NHS innovation to help patients access cancer checks at home.

Traditional endoscopies mean patients need to attend hospital and have a tube inserted whereas the new technology means that people can go about their normal day.

An initial group of 11,000 NHS patients in England will receive the capsule cameras in more than 40 parts of the country.

The NHS has prioritised cancer care during the coronavirus pandemic and the latest figures show that hospitals carried out more than two cancer treatments for every patient they treated for COVID-19.

In December alone, more than 25,000 patients were treated for cancer and more than 200,000 people came forward for checks – 13,000 more than the same month the previous year.

NHS Chief Executive Sir Simon Stevens said: “As we come out of ‘peak COVID’ and the disruption of the pandemic, the NHS is now pushing ahead with genuine innovation to expand services for many other conditions. That’s why we’re now trialing these ingenious capsule cameras to allow more people to undergo cancer investigations quickly and safely. What sounds like sci-fi is now becoming a reality, and as these minute cameras pass through your body, they take two pictures per second checking for signs of cancer and other conditions like Crohn’s disease.”

Dame Cally Palmer, NHS national cancer director said: “It is thanks to the huge efforts of staff that more than 228,000 people started treatment for cancer during the pandemic and in 2020, hospitals carried out more than two cancer procedures for every patient they treated for the virus.

“As the NHS continues to prioritise cancer care, this latest innovation will ensure people can get the checks they need and conveniently – the cameras are small but they will make a big difference for patients.”

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS clinical director for cancer said: “From the cutting edge technology of these colon capsules to COVID protected hubs and chemo home deliveries, the NHS has fast tracked new ways of treating and diagnosing cancer – all while responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Endoscopy services continue and thanks to the hard work of NHS staff, cancer treatment and referrals have come back to usual levels, with more than 25,000 people treated for cancer in December and more than 200,000 coming forward for checks – 13,000 more than the previous year.

“The NHS message to anyone experiencing symptoms is clear – do not delay, help us to help you by coming forward for care – the NHS is ready and able to treat you.”

Infection control measures required to make endoscopies COVID-secure mean they take much longer to do, which has reduced the number of people who can undergo the life-saving checks.

The capsule endoscopy normally takes five to eight hours and provides full images of the bowel with information sent to a data recorder in a shoulder bag, so patients can go about their day.

The cameras will help to speed up the checks, catching more cancers early when they are easier to treat.

The NHS Long Term Plan committed to increasing the number of tumours caught at an early stage form half to three in four.

To further support cancer services, £150 million has been invested in diagnostic equipment such as endoscopy equipment and new MRI and CT scanners.

Hospitals are using the funding to restructure their buildings with the funds to allow social distancing and help prevent the spread of the virus while continuing to deliver care.

NHS England has already invested £160 million in COVID-friendly cancer treatments, which do not hit patients’ immune systems so hard and can reduce hospital trips, as well as delivering chemo to people’s doorsteps and using COVID-secure cancer hubs

At University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation trust (UCLH), the endoscopy team have already started using the innovative diagnostic tool. Clinical lead Ed Seward said: “Colon capsule is a new innovation that has recently become available and involves swallowing a camera pill that takes pictures of the bowel as it passes through. These pictures are beamed to a recording device that the patient wears at their waist.

“Not only does colon capsule increase our diagnostic capacity, because it doesn’t require the resources of a dedicated hospital space to do the examination, it also allows us to do the examination in the patient’s home, so patients who may be shielding or cautious about going to a hospital, can perform the procedure in the comfort of their own homes.”

Dr Alastair McKinlay, President of The British Society of Gastroenterology, said: “We welcome any initiative that seeks to simplify and improve the early diagnosis of gastrointestinal disease and, in particular, colorectal cancer which unfortunately is still responsible for many avoidable deaths.

“Colon capsule is a promising new technology that may offer a real advantage for some patients. For this reason, we welcome the opportunity for a proper service evaluation so that both the limitations and advantages of this technique can be properly assessed. We welcome NHS England’s decision to work with some of the UK’s top experts in this field to make sure that the technology has a proper evaluation. This information will put the UK at the forefront of the world in this important new area.”

Genevieve Edwards, Chief Executive at Bowel Cancer UK, says: “This has the potential to make a huge difference for people with bowel cancer symptoms and could help the NHS to prioritise those who urgently need further tests.”

Health Minister Jo Churchill said: “Cancer diagnosis and treatment has remained a top priority throughout the pandemic, with 1.7 million urgent referrals and over 228,000 people starting treatment between March and December last year.

“As part of our additional investment in the NHS, an extra £1 billion will be used to boost diagnosis and treatment in the year ahead which will allow the NHS to invest in cutting-edge imaging technology such as this, making cancer screening less invasive and more convenient for patients. It’s another great example of how the NHS continues to work tirelessly to keep people safe and provide Covid-friendly cancer care.

“The NHS is open and I urge anyone to speak to their GP if they have any concerns about their health.”