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Sickness surveillance system hopes to ease winter pressures

Data gathered by Public Health England will track surges in norovirus and other conditions

Mark Gould

Monday, 18 December 2017

A sickness surveillance system is being used to help the NHS plan for surges in demand over the winter by tracking outbreaks of norovirus and other illness around the country.

Data gathered by Public Health England (PHE) will be used by NHS England operational monitoring teams to study winter trends and to help give early warning about rising outbreaks of flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and norovirus as well as other acute seasonal illnesses.

This data was first gathered in 2012 to try and predict illnesses that could have impacted the Olympic Games. PHE has gradually increased scope and content and now carry out a comprehensive daily data collection across GP practices, 111, out-of-hours GPs and A&Es.

This year, that information is being fed back into the system through regional winter operations teams to help manage pressures and anticipate surges. In winter, there are approximately three visits to A&E departments for one emergency hospital admission.

The findings will allow the NHS to anticipate rises in hospital admissions and produce a planned response by, for example, rescheduling planned surgery in advance to avoid inconveniencing patients as well as free up beds and converting "swing" wards from elective to emergency care for patients with conditions such as respiratory problems.

Outpatient appointments can be switched to "hot clinics" that avoid A&E referrals by providing direct access to GPs and staff can be moved from planned activity to support general medicine, care of the elderly, those with breathing problems or stomach bugs.

Planning also allows hospitals to isolate infectious patients rather than unintentionally spreading them around multiple wards, something that is particularly important with the norovirus which causes outbreaks of diarrhoea and ward closures.

The data will be used alongside other information such as weather forecasts to anticipate demand for the week or so ahead. For every one degree drop in average temperature below 5oC, there is a 10.5% rise in elderly people going to the GP with breathing problems.

Professor Keith Willett, NHS England’s medical director for acute care, said: “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.”

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