Not just for Christmas: Winter clinics a shining example of innovation we cannot overlook


Amid news that no funding is expected for community acute respiratory hubs this winter, Dr Owain Rhys Hughes explains why these are a shining beacon of innovation that the NHS cannot afford to overlook.

As winter fast approaches, the NHS is gearing up for another incredibly tough season. Waiting lists have hit a new record high of 7.8 million people and ongoing staff shortages continue to pile pressure on overstretched services. Innovation has a vital role to play in supporting the NHS to navigate these periods of intensified pressure. The winter clinics that provided lifeline support during last year’s winter months, which are yet to receive repeat funding for this year, are a shining example of the importance of such innovation – and the danger in overlooking it.

While primary care services deal with an existing backlog of appointments and referrals, the additional influx of patients expected to hit GP surgeries during the winter months – due to spikes in cold and flu complaints, for example – threatens to be overwhelming. Expanding the capacity and resources of primary, community and secondary care during this period is therefore essential. Winter clinics provided a crucial first line of defence for patients experiencing cold and flu symptoms last year. This deflected pressure from GPs and emergency services, boosting their capacity to see the patients they really needed to see.

Without initiatives like these, which facilitate the joined-up collaboration desperately needed to ease pressure on individual services and streamline patient triage, the NHS is facing a winter of unprecedented strain. A lack of capacity within primary care could leave many patients turning to A&E for support. In turn, this could place excessive pressure on secondary care, pushing up wait times for those in most urgent need of treatment.

We cannot afford to overlook the vital necessity of innovation that can unlock and support more collaborative care delivery and boost clinical capacity where it is needed most.

Winter clinics are just one example of the value and potential of such innovation during times of excessive pressure and need. There is a wealth of holistic and tech-powered solutions offering the tools for wider collaboration and more effective clinical communication. Harnessing these is essential to providing the infrastructure and support needed to ensure that the NHS can continue delivering exceptional levels of care amid growing strain.

Streamlining referrals into secondary care and introducing new sites for care delivery and diagnosis is a key way in which innovation is helping to do this. The rapid rollout of Community Diagnostic Centres (CDCs) across the health service is providing additional capacity and working to help reduce the number of patients being sent into secondary care for diagnostic tests and consultation. This is not only helping to diagnose illnesses such as cancer sooner, but is also allowing for triage to a wider range of services, ensuring only those who really need to be seen in urgent care are sent into hospital.

Another way in which diagnosis and referrals are being streamlined to free up capacity is through the introduction of digital advice and guidance. The use of digital tools to connect clinicians across different services can enable GPs and community clinicians to contact specialist consultants in real-time. This allows for advice and guidance to be easily and securely shared, and joint referral decisions to be made. As a result, the number of unnecessary referrals into secondary care can be reduced. Meanwhile, patients can be triaged to the most appropriate form of care sooner, avoiding repeat referrals and additional admin for GPs, boosting their capacity to spend with patients.

In my role at Cinapsis, I’ve seen this have an incredibly positive impact. Through our work in Norfolk and Waveney, for example, we’ve seen the use of digital advice and guidance reduce the wait time for specialist advice from 50 weeks to just 48 hours. This benefit has a knock-on effect by reducing the number of patients entering secondary care when they don’t need to. It also saves GPs time previously spent on copious admin and processing unnecessary referrals, freeing them up to see a higher number of patients.

As each new winter brings a fresh wave of increased pressure on our NHS, we must do everything we can to brace for and reduce the strain it puts services under. We cannot remove this pressure altogether; but we must embrace innovation wherever possible to facilitate the cross-service collaboration and vital communication needed to help clinicians unlock capacity and manage heightened patient demand.

Dr Owain Rhys Hughes, Founder and CEO, Cynapsis