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Collette Johnson, Head of Marketing at Sanome, turns the spotlight onto diagnostic hubs.

Are they a short-term fix for a long-term problem, she asks –

The idea of a national network of NHS ‘one-stop shops’ for scans and tests in shopping centres and sports stadiums sounds like a potential solution to the diagnostic bottleneck that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But anything involving millions of patients, expensive diagnostic equipment and thousands of highly trained medical staff is never going to be that simple.

Will diagnostic hubs help tackle the NHS backlog?

It’s clear that something needs to be done to identify life-threatening diseases such as cancer and diabetes sooner and drive efficiency to tackle the NHS’s huge treatment backlog. But will community diagnostic hubs cure the problem or simply move the bottleneck elsewhere?

There’s no doubt that many patients will like the convenience of getting their X-ray or MRI scan done during their weekly shopping trip. It’s a good opportunity to reach people who can’t or won’t go to hospital – the elderly or people in rural areas, for example, who may face transport issues.

But there will be others who will be put off by the very public setting of a shopping centre or sports stadium at a time when they may already be feeling vulnerable if they’re suffering from worrying symptoms.

Visiting a breast cancer screening van in a supermarket car park is generally accepted because it’s something most women of a certain age do, even when they’re perfectly healthy. Running the gauntlet of shoppers in your local mall for a CT scan when doctors suspect a serious problem is a very different scenario.

Another stumbling block is the fact that patients will still need to see their GP in the first instance for a referral to one of the diagnostic hubs – and we all know what a challenge that can prove to be, particularly in the wake of the pandemic.

To take the pressure off GPs and really make an impact on waiting lists, the community hubs would work better as walk-in centres where patients are triaged on arrival. That would also ease the pressure on over- stretched A&E departments as people would have an alternative for worrying but not immediately life- threatening symptoms.

There is also the question of whether clinical commissioning groups and primary care providers will actually want to open diagnostic hubs in shopping centres because of the cost involved. It will be far more convenient – and cheaper – for them to link the hubs to their existing sites. And perhaps that is more appropriate anyway – when it comes to tests for serious conditions like cancer, most people would probably prefer to be in a medical centre rather than a shopping centre.

Progress hindered through staff shortages

Staffing the community hubs is another challenge. The Department of Health and Social Care has said the 100 centres planned by early 2025 will need an extra 3,500 radiographers to carry out diagnostic tests and 2,000 radiologists to interpret the results, as well as 500 advanced practitioners – radiographers with additional training to report on images.

But the Society and College of Radiographers claims the extra 6,000 specialists do not exist and says the centres will be staffed with people who are only available because they have left jobs elsewhere in the NHS. The Royal College of Radiologists has warned this could have a knock-on effect on waiting times for tests in hospitals – creating a new bottleneck that could delay the start of treatment and potentially lead to poorer outcomes for patients.

It’s encouraging that the NHS Long Term Plan has recognised the crucial role played by rapid access to diagnostic tests. But it remains to be seen whether the new diagnostic hubs will expand capacity rather than just lead to services being transferred from hospitals into the community. For patients’ sake, let’s hope it doesn’t turn out to be a short-term fix for a long-term problem.

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