NHS to provide patients with quicker pathology test results and free up £200m

Patients will receive quicker and improved diagnostic and screening test results for illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease and sepsis, as the NHS delivers a strategy led by NHS Improvement to radically transform its pathology services.

The healthcare improvement agency also expects the network strategy to save the NHS at least £200 million by 2020/21 and to enable hospitals to make better use of their pathology lab staff’s scientific expertise.

Early analysis shows that hospitals which have already started to implement their pathology network saved £33.6 million, with a further £30 million of savings predicted for 2018/19.

NHS pathology services typically use blood, urine, stool and tissue samples to test for diseases, check for potential health risks, including infections, diagnose conditions, and monitor the progression of illnesses. Analysis shows that pathology service units within NHS hospitals typically carry out 1.12 billion tests per year at a cost of £2.2 billion.

Under NHS Improvement’s network strategy, which was developed by Professor Tim Evans, the individual pathology units within 122 acute and specialists NHS hospitals are joining-up to form 29 regional networks, across England.

Each regional network will serve the needs of 1.5 to 2.5 million people on average, and run on a “hub and spoke” model. The “hub” will be the lead pathology lab within the network, which will process the tests using state of the art technology and innovative services.

Meanwhile, the ‘spokes’ will continue to provide onsite tests and screening testing for more urgent cases within individual hospitals.

This should enable patients to have better and faster access to key tests and diagnostic results, while pathology staff will be able to share their clinical expertise more effectively, ultimately making these services more efficient.

Dr Jeremy Marlow, Executive Director of Operational Productivity at NHS Improvement said:

“Patients deserve the best quality care delivered as efficiently as possible which is why there is a real urgency to changing how we run our pathology services. Bringing services together into larger, more efficient networks will provide patients with better and faster access to innovative tests or investigations services, and to receive their results quicker.

“Work to transform NHS pathology services is making excellent progress with support from across the service. However, there is still much to be done by hospitals to ensure the benefits for patients and the NHS is secured. We will to continue to work with the hospitals on implementing this new way of working.”

Virtually every NHS patient interacts with a pathology service at some point, and they are an essential part of the smooth running of the health service, but if they are not run efficiently, patients will be at risk of not getting the best-quality and value care. They also play an important role in research, such as developing vaccines against infectious diseases, and finding treatments for cancer and inherited conditions.

NHS Improvement’s network strategy was developed after analysis showed there is unwarranted variation in how NHS pathology services are delivered to patients because of how they were organised. Also, it was developed to enhance the career of pathology staff, improve the productivity of labs and how much they cost to run.

Rachel Power, Chief Executive of the Patients Association, said:

“Making sure pathology services are working well is essential to ensuring early diagnosis and ultimately improving outcomes for patients.

“We therefore support NHS Improvement’s strategy to transform NHS trusts’ pathology services so patients can get quicker and more reliable tests to identify their illness. Reducing variation and spreading known best practice are essential in making sure the NHS delivers for everyone.”

NHS Improvement is calling on hospitals to accelerate their work with their local communities, and clinical staff on implementing their networks by 2021, so patients can benefit from this better way of delivering these crucial services.