Earlier, faster and more equitable: how innovation is helping the NHS improve cancer diagnosis and treatment pathways

April 8, 2024


Post Title

One in every two people in England will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. Medical innovation has driven huge improvements in cancer outcomes; thanks to advances in treatments, diagnostic techniques and screening, survival rates have doubled in the past 50 years. However, with a growing and aging population, using innovation to detect cancers earlier and ensuring treatment is as effective as possible, remains an important point of focus for the NHS.

In England, many of the system’s cancer priorities were set out in the NHS Long Term Plan in 2019. These include:

  • Ensuring that 75% of people with cancer are diagnosed in the early stages of the disease by 2028.
  • Addressing health inequalities in terms of early diagnosis and screening.
  • Ensuring patients are treated within 62 days of self-referral.
  • Implementing comprehensive screening for breast, bowel and cervical cancer.

In south east London, additional priorities can include improving processes and efficiency in cancer data and pathway management to enable smarter work flows. Or, improving the early identification of cancers through screening and diagnostics, with a particular focus on individuals at risk of health inequalities such as people from more deprived areas.

Addressing the challenges of cancer complexity through technology

As with many areas of health and care, the cancer system has grown to be highly complex, with many interdependencies and interfaces between radiology, pathology and across other services.

In particular, the timely treatment of suspected cancer cases often rests on effective coordination between primary and secondary care –which requires appropriate and timely referrals. This then followed through with an effective booking and triaging once to manage patient flow and ensure the patient receives the correct treatment.

Used effectively, technology offers the promise of reducing some of the complexity associated with managing cancer pathways and improving both staff and patient experience. Broadly speaking, many digital innovations which seem to offer the most benefits can be grouped into two categories:

  • Innovations designed to help improve early diagnosis or detection. These innovations use technology such as AI to identify the groups of patients at highest risks of cancer, improve the accuracy of screening or diagnostic processes, or provide easier or more equitable access to diagnostic tests (e.g. through the use of teledermatology to identify possible skin cancers).
  • Process automation innovations. These innovations reduce the administrative workload on the cancer workforce by automating repetitive processes and free up clinical time to spend on patient care or more complex tasks. These technologies can also reduce waiting times by removing processing bottlenecks in the system, such as those which can occur as patients are referred from primary to secondary care.

Many recent digital innovations are already seeking to make an impact to cancer pathways; some examples include:

  • Blinx – providing digital technologies to give clinicians more time to care for patients and to make strategic and operational improvements in their processes.
  • Blue Prism – a cloud-based solution that creates an AI digital workforce for robotic process automation.
  • Deontics – utilising advanced technology to streamline clinical pathways, standardise healthcare treatment for patients, and reduce decision-to-treatment wait times.
  • Colonflag – a web-based machine learning algorithm designed to help identify individuals aged 40 years or older who are at high risk of having colorectal cancer.
  • Kheiron Medical – Mia, an AI platform supporting radiologists in making the breast screening decisions, to recall or not recall.

With clear targets for cancer performance at both national and regional levels, successful innovations need to be able to demonstrate tangible impact in one or more key performance indicators. Other important considerations for successful spread and adoption include ease of implementation/integration and patient and staff experience.

The role of the Health Innovation Network South London

The Health Innovation Network South London has extensive experience supporting innovations across a wider range of clinical areas, including cancer. Through our DigitalHealth.London programmes, we have worked with some of the capital’s most promising cancer tech companies, helping great ideas to achieve real-world impact.

We also work with systems and services to evaluate, understand and implement cancer innovations. With the speed of progress in many areas of digital innovation, such as AI being extremely high and a workforce busy with operational pressures, we can provide specialist support to identify innovation opportunities and overcome challenges to make the most of technology. We have recently collaborated with the South East London Cancer Alliance (SELCA) and its clinical and cancer management networks on a number of innovation areas including  exploring the opportunities of automation, needs articulation, horizon scanning and supporting the evaluation  of local innovation projects.

“It’s been fantastic to work in collaboration with the HIN to identify potential digital solutions for challenges faced by cancer services. Our expertise in cancer pathway improvement combined with the HIN’s experience of embedding digital innovations across the NHS, will help us to explore innovative ways to transform our local cancer care services and improve patient experiences.”
Smitha Nathan, Associate Director, South East London Cancer Alliance

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