Nightingale hospitals to be converted to cancer testing centres

Laura Donnelly
Simon Stevens - PA
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Nightingale hospitals will be converted into cancer testing centres in a bid to cope with a backlog of suspected cases, the head of the health service has said.

Sir Simon Stevens said a "radically different" model of testing would be introduced in an attempt to deal with the high volume of patients awaiting tests.

Cancer charities have raised fears this year could see an extra 18,000 deaths from the disease because of the number of patients who received a later diagnosis amid the coronavirus crisis.

On Tuesday, Sir Simon said measures would be taken to tackle the backlog – starting with the conversion of the Exeter Nightingale site – from Monday.

The NHS chief executive told the Commons health committee: "It's worth remembering that four fifths of the patients who are on a waiting list are typically waiting for a test or an outpatient appointment rather than waiting to be admitted to hospital for an operation. 

"And given the pressures on hospitals and diagnostic teams over the March, April, May period, there has been a big, big reduction in the flow of patients through those diagnostic services.

"We've got to do something different. We've got to expand diagnostic capacity.  We've also got to do it in new ways."

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He suggested some of the new types of models of testing, such as tests used to diagnose bowel cancer, would be "radically different".

The new model would mean that dedicated testing facilities were running multiple sessions daily, to ensure far more tests can be carried out, he said, with more use of new types of checks.

Health officials stressed that the testing facilities would offer a range of checks, not just tests for cancer. 

Sir Simon said the NHS would be "taking a Nightingale-type approach" to the new dedicated diagnostic centres, starting next week.

"The first of those is going to be the Exeter Nightingale which we are going to partly repurpose for non-Covid CT scanning that will begin next Monday and run eight till eight and seven days a week," he said.

"So yes, this is an opportunity and a necessity, quite frankly to do something quite different in diagnostics." 

Harrogate Nightingale Hospital – which was never used to treat Covid-19 patients – has already been converted into a testing centre for people with suspected cancer and heart disease. Health officials are drawing up plans to create a number of new standalone centres which can operate a "production line" model of testing, getting through far greater volumes of tests more quickly.

Sir Simon said experts were also looking at an expansion in "non-invasive" methods of screening, such as CT colonography, which can be used to diagnose bowel cancer, and a wider rollout of new methods of screening.

 Health officials said the use of the Nightingales was under review, but said some capacity might be kept as an "insurance policy" against a second wave of coronavirus. 

During the hearing, the select committee chairman, Jeremy Hunt, suggested health chiefs "took their eye off the ball" when it came to infection prevention, resulting in 13 times as many deaths from Covid-19 in UK care homes compared with Germany.

Of all the UK's care home residents, 5.3 per cent were confirmed or suspected to have died from Covid-19, compared with 0.4 per cent in Germany, according to analysis of official statistics. However, UK records include probable cases, while German records only include definite diagnoses. 

Mr Hunt also repeatedly questioned NHS officials about the findings of an investigation by The Telegraph which found that advice telling hospital staff how to socially distance was not issued until May 18. 

Papers of the Government's Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies show that, by the end of April, around a fifth of infections resulted from transmission within hospitals.

Prof Powis said there had been "a focus on infection prevention control" throughout the pandemic. He said research suggesting one in five infections were transmitted in hospitals came from a "limited" study, which may have included some cases in which patients caught the virus before they came to hospital.