Thousands of patients who need NHS treatment could be quickly and easily allocated to hospitals that can take on their care thanks to a new online ‘matching’ platform.
As part of efforts to reduce the covid backlog, the easy-to-use tool allows NHS staff to view and add available surgery slots in hospitals across the country, including independent sector capacity.
Clinical teams can upload details of patients on their waiting list who are willing to travel, with other NHS and independent sector providers able to log on and ‘match’ people up to treatment.
Initially introduced for patients needing a hospital admission, the platform will now expand to include cancer, diagnostic checks, and outpatient appointments. Around four in five patients on an NHS waiting list won’t need a hospital admission.
Since its launch in January, more than 1,700 offers of support have been made with thousands of patients set to benefit as the platform grows.
The system is mainly used for patients who have been waiting the longest, with health chiefs calling it a “key tool” as part of the NHS’ ongoing ambitions to bring down the covid backlogs that built up during the pandemic, with the next ambition to virtually eliminate 65 week waits by April 2024.
Patient information is included to help organisations decide whether they can pick up the case including how far the patient is willing to travel, the severity of the illness, their BMI, and how long they have been waiting for care.
If more than one provider offers treatment, the options are put to the patient who can then choose based on factors including how far they would have to travel.
Gynaecology, colorectal and trauma and orthopaedics are the top three specialties to have benefited from this digital mutual aid so far, but hundreds of different treatments or appointments can be uploaded.
NHS chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, said: “Despite significant pressure on services, NHS staff have already made incredible progress against our elective recovery plan, and this smart new tool will help us to continue to reduce long waits for patients.
“It shows, once again, the benefits of having a national health service – NHS staff can now work even more closely with other hospitals across the country to identify capacity and conveniently match patients to available treatment and appointment slots.
“Technology is already transforming the way we work in the NHS and we will continue to embrace the latest innovations, like this one, to deliver the best possible for care for patients.”
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: “We’re already giving patients greater choice over where they are treated and this will go even further by matching patients up to services based on their clinical needs and personal preferences. This will help us to deliver thousands more diagnostic checks for major conditions and offer people treatment sooner – often without the need to go to hospital.
“We are using all tools at our disposal to bring down waiting lists – one of the government’s top five priorities – while this platform will also help us to drive better collaboration across the NHS and the independent sector to treat patients more quickly.”
Chief executive of the Patients Association, Rachel Power, said: We welcome the expansion of the hospital matching platform and think it will make it even easier for patients and the healthcare professional to make a decision together about where to have treatment or a test.
“Patient choice has been a right for over decade but not all patients are aware they have the right, and it isn’t always offered to them. Hopefully, making it easy for health professionals to easily see the choices of where patients can be treated will increase the number of patients who can take advantage of mutual aid within the NHS.
“We’re very supportive of mutual aid. We’ve worked with the Getting It Right First Time (GIRFT) programme on a mutual aid programme in the East of England that gave patients the option to have surgery at a hospital other than their local one. We know patients welcomed getting surgery earlier and together with them and GIRFT we’ve created information for other patients about the benefits of elective surgical hubs.”
Mutual aid is a key part of the NHS Elective Recovery Plan, with joined up working and shared support helping the health service to virtually eliminate waits of over two years by last July and playing a key part role in bringing down the number of 78 week waits even further, ahead of the next ambition to virtually eliminate 65 week waits by April 2024.
The new platform is just one example of how the NHS is maximising all available health sector capacity to support elective recovery, increasing the use of independent sector by more than a third since 2021 – from 65,000 appointments and procedures a week to more than 90,000 a week now.