A ‘sickness surveillance system’ will be employed by NHS England to predict health care demands this winter.
The system will track outbreaks of norovirus, flu, respiratory syncytial virus and other commonly spread seasonal illnesses. Data will be gathered by Public Health England (PHE) to help anticipate rises in hospital admissions and produce response plans accordingly. Measures might include:
- rearranging elective surgeries
- working to free up more hospital beds
- increasing the number of wards for emergency care
- moving outpatient appointments to ‘hot clinics’ run by GPs
- moving staff across sectors to support general medicine, care of the elderly, patients with respiratory illnesses and patients suffering from gastrointestinal viruses.
The ability to predict illness traits within the population will also enable hospitals to isolate infectious patients, thus minimizing hospital-acquired infections. This will be especially important when managing outbreaks of norovirus, which can often result in ward closures.
Professor Keith Willett, Medical Director for Acute Care at NHS England, highlighted the impact of ‘major outbreaks’ on hospital services. He explained that data collected by PHE’s surveillance system will be used alongside other information, such as the weather forecast, to predict upcoming demands for secondary-care services.
Medical Director at PHE, Professor Paul Cosford, commented: ‘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.’
He added: ‘The health service has prepared more intensively and comprehensively for winter than ever before. Record levels of flu vaccinations and more joined-up care will enable us to keep frail older people out of hospital.’
The NHS is advising the public to take extra precautions to minimize the ‘after-effects’ of ‘extreme cold weather’. It has advised elderly people to stay warm and have their flu vaccinations to avoid hospital stays that are unnecessary.