Infrared temperature screening to detect COVID-19

Through its targeted surveillance of emerging COVID-19 issues recorded on national systems, such as the National Reporting and Learning System (NRLS), the new Learn from Patient Safety Events service (LFPSE), and other sources, the National Patient Safety Team identified patient safety issues associated with the use of infrared thermometers to detect COVID-19.

Infrared (IR) thermometers were frequently seen in use during the COVID-19 pandemic as a means to screen for a fever without the user or the device touching the patient, thereby maintaining ‘social distancing’. Many thermal temperature screening products were originally designed for non-medical purposes, and therefore do not perform to the level required to accurately support a medical diagnosis. We were concerned that relying on IR methods alone may disadvantage patients accessing healthcare services who may be refused entry if the IR thermometer registered a fever.

We shared our concerns with stakeholders and in July 2020, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority issued a statement noting that temperature screening products should not be relied on for the detection of COVID-19. Communication regarding use of non-contact forehead thermometry was also sent out to NHS regional teams from the COVID national incident coordination centre. IPC guidance from that time advised use of a risk-based approach, with a focus on screening, triage and testing to enable early recognition prior to appointment, admission, and subsequent management of a patient, and not relying purely on temperature screening.

About our patient safety review and response work

The recording and central collection of patient safety events to support learning and improvement is fundamental to improving patient safety across all parts of NHS healthcare.

A core part of the work of the National Patient Safety Team is to review these records to identify new or under recognised patient safety risks, which are often not obvious at a local level. In response to any newly identified risks, we develop advice and guidance, such as National Patient Safety Alerts, or work directly with partners as in the example above, to support providers across the NHS to take the necessary action to keep patients safe.

You can find out more about our processes for identifying new and under recognised patient safety issues on our using patient safety events data to keep patients safe and reviewing patient safety events and developing advice and guidance web pages.

You can also find more case studies providing examples of this work on our case study page.