Unmasking NHS diagnostic test targets

13th July 2023

by John Clarke

Diagnostic tests play a pivotal role in identifying and addressing medical conditions, and signposting what’s next for patients on their given pathway. Yet many NHS trusts grapple with a common predicament: how to meet their diagnostic test targets. Only 69% of patients have been seen within the six-week window target — as opposed to 99%. So, why is this target consistently being missed and what can be done about it?

Patient demand vs. limited resources

The ever-increasing demand for diagnostic tests often outpaces the resources available within NHS Trusts. That leads to longer wait times which, in turn, affects the ability to meet targets.

From equipment to skilled personnel, resource availability is a significant factor. Healthcare professionals are the backbone of diagnostic testing.  With unprecedented staff shortages in the NHS — 43,000 vacancies for nursing staff alone — they simply don’t have enough staff to run at full capacity. That, coupled with financial constraints impacting the purchase of advanced x-ray equipment, capability for conducting tests is severely limited.

To tackle some of these resource issues, the government announced plans for new community diagnostic centres (CDCs) across England — with a plan for up to 160 CDCs supporting the NHS in conducting 17 million tests by March 2025. With 127 centres currently operational, and plans to reach the full 160 by 2024, we can see progress. But, without effective coordination of a wide geographic area, more capacity may increase complexity for patients managing their healthcare journey.

There’s also an imperative for improved systems to seamlessly coordinate non-clinical components and logistical aspects — for a cohesive and patient-centric experience, even when involving multiple organisations.

Staffing diagnostic services

Shortages in key roles such as radiologists, radiographers, and laboratory staff, have extended waiting times for diagnostic tests and interpretations, affecting patient outcomes. There’s also a pressing need to bridge the expertise gap in specialised areas of diagnostics.

To address the requirement for a comprehensive staffing approach, the NHS Workforce Plan has outlined strategies for recruitment, retention, training, and workforce planning. However, this is not a short-term fix — with its effects being seen over a longer period of time.

Covid-19

The COVID-19 pandemic massively disrupted the NHS in terms of what it could offer as a service, redirecting resources and focus away from routine diagnostic testing, and this effect will be felt for many years to come.

Manual processes

The coordination of appointments, managing patient flow, and ensuring timely delivery of tests, can be complex — particularly when dealing with a high volume of cases and complex healthcare structures. The lack of adequate technology infrastructure in the NHS hinders process efficiency. As in the case of manual data entry and appointment management, which is admin intensive for staff. And patients aren’t dealt with quickly, leading to poor expectancies and even worsening conditions due to inherent delays.

Patient communication and reassurance

When it comes to many diagnostic tests, such as CT and MRI scans, there is a need to capture safety information e.g., reminders about fasting when dyes are involved. Patients also need to be reassured about the procedure, given as much information as possible, so they don’t back out of a procedure feeling scared and unprepared.

The path forward

If we look at what we can do reasonably quickly, a digital solution is one of the key options to help meet government targets. A patient portal platform would allow patients to take a more proactive role in their healthcare journey, and ease  strain on NHS trusts.

Top 9 benefits of a diagnostic booking solution

  • Enhanced access and convenience: Patients can potentially access diagnostic services from a variety of locations or providers, making it easier to schedule appointments that suit their preferences and availability. This can lead to reduced wait times and improved patient experience.
  • Optimised resource utilisation: Effective scheduling can help distribute the demand for diagnostic services more efficiently, reducing over-utilisation of certain facilities and underutilisation of others. This optimises resource allocation and minimises bottlenecks.
  • Reduced administrative burden: A unified booking system simplifies administrative tasks by consolidating patient information and scheduling processes. This can lead to cost savings and reduced administrative overhead.
  • Streamlined referrals: For healthcare providers, referring patients for diagnostic tests becomes more straightforward when working within complex environments. This can facilitate faster and more accurate diagnoses.
  • Interoperability and data sharing: A diagnostic booking solution can span multiple organisations and be designed to ensure secure data sharing and interoperability. This means patient data can be seamlessly transferred between healthcare providers, enhancing continuity of care.
  • Standardised protocols: Such a system can enforce standardised protocols for booking and conducting diagnostic tests — ensuring consistency in care delivery and reducing the risk of errors.
  • Comprehensive reporting: Reporting and analytics tools — enable healthcare providers and administrators to track diagnostic service utilisation, outcomes and other KPIs.
  • Scalability: As healthcare needs evolve and new organisations potentially join the network, a multi-organisation diagnostic booking solution can scale to accommodate growing demand and changing requirements.
  • Improved coordination of care: When multiple healthcare providers are involved in a patient’s care, the booking solution can help ensure that diagnostic tests are scheduled in a way that aligns with the overall care plan, improving care coordination.

If we look at what we can do reasonably quickly, a digital solution is one of the key options to help meet government targets.

A transformative step

While challenges persist in meeting diagnostic test targets within the NHS, embracing new digital solutions could be a transformative step forward. By providing a consistent platform for enhanced patient engagement, streamlined communication, and efficient resource management, such technology can play a key role in alleviating existing pressures and preparing for the future.

Watch CIO Conversations on-demand webinar: Going digital with Diagnostics

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