The NHS will use a sickness surveillance system to help react to increasing demands on services over winter.
Using data gathered by Public Health England, the NHS will track illnesses such as norovirus, flu and respiratory syncytial virus to gain an indication about rising outbreaks of acute seasonal illnesses.
By using the system, the NHS hopes to anticipate rises in hospital admissions and respond by rescheduling planned surgery, freeing up beds and converting ‘swing wards’ from elective to emergency care.
The plans will also help hospitals isolate infectious patients to stop viruses from spreading across multiple wards. The norovirus can be a particular problem and can be responsible for outbreaks of diarrhoea and ward closures.
Other responses to help the service over winter include changing outpatient appointments to ‘hot clinics’ that avoid A&E referrals, providing direct access to GPs. Staff can also be moved to support general medicine, care of the elderly and those with breathing problems or stomach bugs.
This type of data was first used in 2012 to predict illnesses that could have affected the Olympic Games.
Public Health England now carry out daily data collection across GP practices, 111, out of hours GPs and A&Es.
Information will be directed to winter operations teams to help manage pressures and predict surges. The data will be used alongside other information such as weather forecasts to anticipate weekly demands.
Changes in weather can cause a rise in the number of elderly people who go to the GP with breathing problems.
Professor Keith Willett, NHS England’s medical director for Acute Care, said: “The impact major outbreaks of these illnesses can have on our hospitals cannot be underestimated – leading to whole wards having to be closed, with the loss of beds just when we need them most. We can look at the trends across all of the PHE health data sources and try to anticipate surges in demand.
“The breadth and variety of surveillance data from PHE gives us vital time to put escalation plans in place, to free up beds and reconfigure wards. We can plan how to best provide care to a higher number of patients with a specific illness, and to corral patients who are suffering the same illnesses. It also means we can better predict when things will return to normal and plan accordingly.”
Professor Paul Cosford, medical director at Public Health England, said: “It is widely known that every year we see an increase in illness during the winter, and this means we need to do all we can to support the NHS during this time of increased pressure. Our world-leading surveillance systems can track serious upsurges as and when they’re beginning to emerge and support central coordination of NHS resource.
“Even at relatively moderate temperatures there is nearly a 4% increase in deaths and nearly a 1% increase in emergency admissions for every one degree drop in temperature. A combination of Met Office weather alerts and the PHE surveillance data, which includes syndromic data, offers the NHS vital tools for approaching seasonal demand for health care.”