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NHS Digital chief outlines response to coronavirus


Mark Say Managing Editor

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NHS Digital has thrown the emphasis onto updating algorithms in the Pathways system and encouraging people to use the online triage process in response to the spread of coronavirus.

Chief executive officer Sarah Wilkinson outlined the moves at this week’s Digital Health Rewired conference, in a presentation that was hastily changed beforehand to reflect the rising concerns over the virus.

The main steps include updating the relevant clinical algorithms in the Pathways digital tool, which is used for triaging and directing the public towards urgent and emergency care services and accounted for about 17 million triages last year.

“These algorithms are very hard to get right,” Wilkinson said, adding: “The optimisation of the algorithms in itself, to balance the operational realities of the process versus capturing rare conditions is tricky.”

The algorithms are designed in-house by NHS Digital clinicians then reviewed by the independent external NHS Pathways National Clinical Governance Group, which also reaches out to the royal medical colleges for advice on specific areas.

Evolving process

Wilkinson added that, as the understanding of the virus is improving, the call scripts for the triage process is changing.

“Over the coming weeks it is likely that the systems will have to constantly evolve as the situation changes,” she said.

The move to direct more people towards online 111 services reflects the intensifying pressure on the telephone service.

“We’re working hard to enable as many people as possible to access the 111 triage processes digitally, via either online, the website or the capability within the NHS App,” she said. “It’s imperative as the call centres are under pressure and we need to get as many people as possible onto online channels for that first part of the triage which can be quite time consuming.”

She added: “At the moment we are moving to digital channels across healthcare. That is great, and we would like to see more of it.”

Other steps include keeping the NHS.UK website updated with the latest information and advice, collecting data on reported cases and readiness for the virus from across the healthcare system to inform Public Health England and NHS England, planning to support home and remote working options for clinicians, and planning for new functions such as management of sick notes.

In addition, there are exercises to prepare for the potential deployment of the National Pandemic Flu Service, supporting information dissemination, and ensuring organisational readiness inside NHS Digital.

Image by, CC BY 2.0

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