NHS long term plan investment means faster cancer diagnosis across the north east and north Cumbria

A new partnership, funded by national cancer transformation funds, will speed up diagnosis times for over 250,000 patients across the north east and north Cumbria, using the latest digital technology.

NHS England’s £2 million investment is being used by staff and specialists in the Northern Cancer Alliance to develop innovative and pioneering ways of supporting the national aim of slashing cancer waiting times by diagnosing and treating three out of four cancers at an early stage. The new region-wide service will reduce the need to transport patient samples by creating digital images of pathology tissues which can be shared far more easily and will help facilitate collaborative working to support diagnosis.

The technology means that digital slides can be created by scanning glass slides, containing the tissue sample which has been taken from the patient, providing a high-resolution image that can then be viewed on a computer screen or mobile device.

The innovation will support 115 pathologists across ten NHS hospital trusts, who handle over a million such slides every year.

Trusts that have collaborated include North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust, Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust, North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

Pathologists are a critical part of the NHS workforce. They deliver diagnostic testing, provide treatment advice and help to devise new treatments to fight diseases like cancer.

The current pathology system relies on fragile glass slides which often have to be physically transported or posted between hospitals and pathology laboratories. Digital imaging offers instant sharing across IT networks and also enables complex images to be shared easily for rapid specialist second opinions. It also allows much faster and more accurate tumour measurements than can be achieved using traditional processes.

NHS England’s Medical Director System Improvement and Professional Standards, for North East and Yorkshire, Professor Chris Gray, said: “It’s critical to make diagnoses and share information as quickly as possible between doctors, other healthcare professionals and patients.

“Pathology services have a key role in earlier diagnosis, which improves patient care by speeding up the process and reducing any anxiety caused by waiting for test results.”

Alison Featherstone, Northern Cancer Alliance manager, said: “With our aim of getting cancers diagnosed earlier we need to ensure that we are making the best use of the highly skilled pathology staff that we have.

“This new digital system will support earlier diagnosis of cancers by using computer-aided algorithms that can highlight areas of images where cells are dividing rapidly and guide the clinicians to those areas for examination. It will also enable more accurate measurement of and comparison of images.”

Jane Rendall, president at Sectra in the UK, the vendor chosen to provide the solution, said: “That ten trusts chose to collaborate to move pathology into the 21st century, is an enormously powerful message to the wider NHS when services are tasked with earlier detection of cancer and other illnesses. This is a hugely important project for Sectra, and we hope to work with the NHS in other parts of the country that may want to replicate this use of digital technology in North Cumbria and the North East.”

NHS England is funding a range of similar innovative projects across the country. This initiative is part of a national programme to diagnose cancer earlier and improve survival rates while helping to future proof diagnostic services as part of the NHS Long Term Plan.

The use of digital pathology is expected to lead to increased efficiency in labs, and more widely, as results are accessed and stored securely online.

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