NHS expands high-res skin imaging to speed up cancer diagnoses and treatment for tens of thousands of patients

Tens of thousands of patients are set to receive a diagnosis and treatment for skin cancer faster, with accelerated NHS rollout of ‘teledermatology’, which involves taking high spec images of spots, moles or lesions on people’s skin.

The simple technology which consists of a small lens the size of a 50p piece that can be attached to a phone camera, also called a dermatoscope, is enabling specialist dermatologists to double the number of patients they can review in a day.

Currently used in about 15% of trusts offering dermatology services, teledermatology is set to be rolled out to all areas of the country by July this year.

The use of dermatoscopes to take photos is also being expanded across GP practices, which can support people living in more in rural communities to get a faster diagnosis without having to travel for a specialist appointment or avoid the requirement to attend a specialist.

More than 600,000 people have been referred for skin cancer checks in the last year – almost one tenth (9%) higher than in the previous year and double the number sent for checks almost a decade ago. Over 56,000 patients with skin cancer received treatment last year.

As part of ambitious plans to reduce waiting times for patients, NHS trusts have been asked to expand the use of teledermatology within community diagnostic centres, meaning people will not need to wait for a face-to-face appointment to have their skin assessed – they can be referred directly to a diagnostic hub in their local area.

There are now 108 community diagnostic centres open and offering a tests and checks in local areas close to people’s homes.

The NHS is also trialling the use of magnifying lenses that use artificial intelligence technology to assess a patient’s skin lesions within seconds for the presence of cancer.

The technology, called deep ensemble for the recognition of malignancy, is initially being used alongside clinician assessments, but it is hoped it will provide both faster and more accurate skin cancer detection. This specific technology is currently the only one marked in the UK as an artificial intelligence medical device.

During an earlier testing phase, the device was shown to have helped avoid around 10,000 unneeded face-to-face appointments.

Some hospitals are seeing virtually all patient’s diagnosed and treated for skin cancer within two months of an urgent GP referral thanks to teledermatology.

NHS Chief Executive Amanda Pritchard said: “Record numbers of people are being checked and treated for cancer and thanks to efforts to ensure people come forward with worrying symptoms, we are now diagnosing a higher proportion of cancers at an early stage, increasing people’s chances of beating this cruel disease.

“There is no denying that increased demand has placed huge pressure on services, but championing the use of digital technology and new ways of working is key to reducing waits and is exactly why we are accelerating the use of teledermatology – it is a small piece of kit that has the potential to speed up diagnosis and treatment for tens of thousands with skin cancer.

“We are going a step further even and expanding the use of artificial intelligence lenses in teldermatology to diagnose skin cancers, and this is proving highly effective in areas that have trialled the technology so far.

“This is just one example of innovation adopted by the NHS to ensure people are diagnosed and treated for cancer as early as possible – we are also investing millions to increase diagnostic and treatment capacity and driving forward early diagnosis initiatives like our community lung trucks –and we will not stop there in our efforts to find cancers earlier and save more lives”.

Dr Tom While, a GP from Somerset, said: “Being able to get a swift and specialist opinion on a skin lesion or rash, and advice on treatment or local surgical options, often negates the need to refer the patient on to another hospital to see the specialist in person. This not only reduces waiting lists, but strongly benefits my patients who live in rural areas, saving them from long unnecessary journeys.

“If a patient does need to be referred on to a specialist, then the teledermatology service helps to streamline that process, ensuring the patient is seen in the correct clinic at the right time – it’s a fantastic service and an asset to rural general practice, and hard to imagine working without it”.

The NHS has made significant progress in reducing the number of people waiting longest for treatment or to have their cancer ruled out – having brought the 62-day backlog down by almost 15,000 patients since the summer (19,248 on the 2 April 2023 compared with 33,950 on 19 September 2022).

This is despite staff managing consistently high demand for cancer services over the last two years – with up to one in four GP referrals a month for cancer, thanks to the success of public awareness campaigns and early diagnosis drives.

More people than ever before are getting seen for cancer – in the last year (April 2022 to March 2023) 424,134 more people were checked for cancer compared with the same period before the pandemic, and over nine in 10 patients started treatment within one month.

As part of new plans to see and treat people for cancer as early as possible, hospitals have been asked to work towards a 10-day turnaround when delivering diagnostic test results to patients who have received an urgent referral for suspected cancer.