Last week, Thérèse Coffey replaced Steve Barclay as the UK’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Shortly after her appointment, the new post-holder set out her four ‘ABCD’ priorities:
- Ambulances - emergency waiting times are now potentially causing death and disability - like other priorities, this is because of problems with the onward flow of patients through the system.
- Backlog - the backlog has now reached 6.8m people waiting for care. In August, NHS England announced the next phase of the recovery plan was in operation, focusing on eradicating long waits for urgent cancer referrals, and longer waits for elective care in other conditions.
- Care - reforming social care, where up to one in seven hospital beds are currently occupied by patients waiting for discharge.
- Doctors and dentists - solving staff shortages including other groups (e.g. nurses), where there are currently around 120,000 vacancies across the NHS.
How can the new Secretary of State tackle the backlog?
Focusing on the backlog priority, Accurx’s Policy Lead Matt Honeyman shares some thoughts on the challenges facing Thérèse Coffey and her department, and the best way to tackle these:
“Thérèse Coffey takes office with the NHS approaching winter in its worst shape for decades, with crises on multiple fronts. To put the service on a firm footing, she must prioritise decisively and support NHS services to both find new solutions and scale existing ones.
“Rapid progress can be made on the backlogs she rightly identifies as a key priority, by helping spread existing solutions. For example, SMS and email communications between patients and care providers can replace old school letters and ‘phone tennis’. These digital channels - already ubiquitous in primary care and used by some trusts - should be prioritised across England to support the elective recovery.
“Currently, many trusts miss out on opportunities to use their resources most effectively because of slow and inefficient communication channels. But the increasing use of software that enables staff to SMS and email patients can enable trusts to:
1. tackle waiting lists and maximise capacity by planning and prioritising with the most up-to-date information,
2. reduce non-attendance of appointments by offering patients routes to change/cancel appointments or even get advice without the need for a full appointment.
“NHS England wants to give patients the option to be seen virtually at trusts with shorter waiting lists. They can use existing platforms for this that let staff manage the communication with patients before and after a virtual appointment, and email back to a GP with completed notes, minimising burdens on home trusts and GPs.
“By also placing far more patients on PIFU pathways, and creating a two-way channel of communication for those patients, trusts can make PIFU a key tool in delivering outpatient care. Patients can get in touch with teams to ask for help with conditions via two-way messaging and resolve queries quickly, or establish whether a follow-up appointment is needed.
“Changes like these would enable hospital staff to provide immediate care to those who need it the most, while reducing waiting lists, and improving the quality of communication with patients. This vital work should sit alongside and integrate with the ambitious plans recently shared for the NHS App, which will take time to develop and mature as another channel through which these communications can land with patients.”
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