by Kira Pennington
As somebody who has worked in healthcare across a number of areas, most notably in British military healthcare overseas and within different parts of the NHS, I’ve seen first hand the transformative impact that well-implemented digital transformation can have on care outcomes.
With the health service’s difficulties rarely out of the news headlines, thinking strategically about how to improve outcomes, enhance patients’ experience of care and giving staff more time to do their best work has never been more important.
That’s why since 2021 we have seen an increased national focus on speeding up cancer diagnosis and treatment, through the introduction of Faster Diagnostic Standards.
But to truly turnaround our cancer performance and bring outcomes, survival rates and patient experience in line with other developed countries, we need two key things: Effective communication and a well-implemented tool kit to make this happen. That means creating a digital infrastructure that enables the right people to intervene at the right time, with the right information is especially important.
My journey working in operational and strategic roles across the health service, most recently as a digital diagnostics lead at the integrated Care System level within Lancashire and South Cumbria NHS Trust, has shown me the pressures that come from trying to get patients along care pathways as quickly as possible within a heavily target-driven environment.
Given that experience, I was keen to discuss with Feedback Medical the impact that Bleepa could have on reducing waits, cutting treatment backlogs, and speeding up symptom-based pathways.
I’ve seen the problems that arise from poorly managed pathways, particularly within diagnostics – an essential pillar of any strategy designed to improve referral to treatment performance. After all, imaging and diagnostics touch about 90% of all care pathways. Poor information sharing within diagnostics as a result of several disparate systems can ultimately result in significant operational problems.
Given where we are now, whether we’re talking about cancer pathways or other forms of condition- or symptom-based pathways, the only way we are going to improve our performance around diagnostic targets is around improving our communication. In my experience, the most effective way to do this is to harness the habits and fluid communication that we have grown accustomed to in our personal lives, through mobile devices and a seamless use of different messaging apps.
That is why a system like Bleepa, where interoperability forms a core part of its operating model, has the potential to save so much time and needless complexity from the process of guiding a patient through the right pathway.
Reducing wait times
Bleepa provides the digital infrastructure that enables Sussex Integrated Care System’s community diagnostic centre (CDC) to provide end-to-end symptom-based pathways.
Initial data from this programme has delivered an approximate 70% saving in patient wait times compared to the NHS 18-week referral to treatment (RTT) target, without the need for additional clinical staff.
Even if we weren’t having to deal with some of the most dramatic workforce shortages in a generation, increasing the number of diagnostic tools available won’t in itself help to bring down backlogs or shorten referral times. After all, any one CT scanner is only going to have so much capacity, and without the requisite trained staff to operate these complex pieces of equipment, we can only maximise output to a certain point.
Right people, right time, right information
That means having the ability to expedite specific patients through diagnostic bottlenecks is vital right now. This work can never be done effectively by working in silos. The kind of organic, fluid experience we have communicating in our personal lives using messaging apps, lends itself very well to a diagnostic scenario.
Sharing medical grade imagery remotely to be reviewed on a smartphone or computer helps to facilitate rapid input from specialists when needed. This, in turn can reduce any unnecessary outpatient appointments, saving valuable time in the process.
Say, for example a patient has come to their GP with blood in their stools and abdominal pain complaints. The GP may be concerned that these symptoms, combined with other aspects of the patient’s medical history, could suggest signs of bowel cancer. The GP can refer the patient to the local community diagnostic hub for diagnostic tests.
By using a tool like Bleepa, a junior radiologist administering the relevant scan get help firming up a diagnosis by getting input from a senior on-call radiology specialist for immediate feedback using the platform’s chat function. The on-call specialist can view the message and the relevant imaging on their device at home. They can then give their insights to their junior colleague before the full radiology report is written and turned around.
If the on-call specialist uses the Bleepa chat to confirm the scans indicate bowel cancer, the pathway coordinator can send the patient’s case for urgent review by the multidisciplinary team at their regular meeting the next day.
The gastroenterology consultant subsequently messages the GP back to confirm the diagnosis and rapidly move the patient on the treatment pathway. By using Bleepa, the GP can see what is happening at every stage of the cancer pathway.
The example above illustrates how a succession of key bottlenecks have been avoided, making the patient’s journey along the pathway as seamless as possible.
Rules around the correct procedures for patient referral for diagnostics can be incredibly challenging. That can mean that GPs don’t always order the right test or give a complete view of the necessary information.
This problem persists even around cancer pathways. A more connected means of multi-disciplinary communication means that a radiologist or clinical specialist can reach out to whomever is triaging the patient and request further information quickly or missing tests – without needing to pass messages through intermediaries.
So, for example, using Bleepa, a respiratory consultant can pick up a secondary care referral, and see that the requested diagnostic tests don’t include either spirometry or a FeNo test for a patient reporting breathlessness.
The specialist can quickly refer the patient to the local CDC for these missing tests. Once the patient goes to the centre for the relevant tests, the team there share the results via Bleepa with all the other professionals involved in the patients care, from primary care onwards.
The flow of communication and ease of referral through one shared system means that the patient isn’t brought in at the wrong time for an appointment, nor are they having to wait to take the further tests needed. By having the right information at the right time, delays are avoided, saving valuable time.
Time is of the essence
As we are only too aware, the UK’s performance across a range of key cancer treatment measures – particularly in time to diagnosis and in survival rates – has been lagging behind our neighbours.
The Faster Diagnosis Standards that have emerged as a tool for bridging this gap, and increasing the chances that cancers are identified sooner, are a vital part of the equation.
To meet these standards, ICSs and their corresponding Cancer alliances are turning to best practice timed pathways. We need integrated systems and better communication which will clear away the bottlenecks that frustrate clinicians and operational teams’ efforts in this area.
Bleepa provides the ability for that fluid communication that is needed for all cross-provider diagnostic pathways, and complex multi-disciplinary processes which will deliver the impact that patients deserve.
Kira Pennington is a digital implementation specialist who has worked in healthcare for 25 years across a variety of roles within the NHS and military healthcare. Reach out to Kira at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get in touch to book a demo and learn more about how Bleepa is already empowering teams to bring down referral-to-treatment waits within timed care pathways.