GP practices will be able to refer patients to ‘community hubs’ for diagnostic tests under new plans to expand NHS capacity following a huge backlog caused by the Covid pandemic, NHS England has said.
The new plans, which feature in a review of diagnostic services, carried out by Professor Sir Mike Richards on behalf of NHS England, recommend that the ‘one stop shops’ be created across the country, and away from hospitals, so patients can receive checks close to their homes.
The new facilities should be developed on available high street locations, retail parks as well as on NHS sites, such as community hospitals, the report said.
This expansion in communities is needed ‘as soon as possible’ to meet increasing patient demand and to tackle the backlog caused by Covid, the report added, as the potential for growing capacity on acute hospital sites is ‘very limited’. It is estimated that three hubs will be needed per million population, initially.
The NHS should work to establish new referral pathways, as well as increase the diagnostic workforce and establish new roles, the report said.
Under the plans, tests for emergency and elective diagnostics would be separate, to reduce hold-ups for patients.
The report said that, based on increasing demand and patient convenience, it is likely these community hubs will provide imaging (CT, MRI, ultrasound and X-ray), cardiorespiratory, pathology and endoscopy services.
The hubs should also be expanded to ensure access to blood tests locally, saving patients from visiting hospitals and could feature consulting rooms alongside diagnostic facilities for assessing patients for a range of conditions.
The report said: ‘The aim will be to keep these hubs as free from Covid-19 as possible, by testing patients for the virus shortly before attendance. In future antibody testing may play a part in keeping these hubs free of Covid-19.’
In addition to establishing a new community hub, the report recommended that CT scanning capacity be doubled over the next five years, and that tests for heart and lung diseases be enhanced, given the link to coronavirus.
A recent study found that diagnoses of common physical and mental health conditions in primary care fell by up to half during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘The right moment’
Professor Sir Mike Richards said: ‘The pandemic has brought into sharper focus the need to overhaul the way our diagnostic services are delivered. While these changes will take time and investment in facilities and more staff, it is the right moment to seize the opportunities to assist recovery and renewal of the NHS.
‘Not only will these changes make services more accessible and convenient for patients but they will help improve outcomes for patients with cancer and other serious conditions.’