NHS uses sickness surveillance system to prepare for winter

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As demand for health services increases over the winter period, the NHS has begun using a sickness surveillance system to better prepare. 

The aim of the system is to plan for the eventuality of surges in demand for the services and the system helps Public Health England in tracking outbreaks of norovirus and other illness in the country.

Operational monitoring teams of NHS England will use the data to study winter trends and give early warning about rising outbreaks of flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), norovirus and other acute seasonal illnesses.

The findings will also allow the NHS to plan and respond to increase in hospital admissions as well as the NHS being able to reschedule planned surgery in advance, free up beds and convert ‘swing’ wards from elective to emergency care.

Through planning, hospitals can isolate infectious patients rather than unintentionally spread them around multiple wards, which is particularly important with the norovirus virus, which causes outbreaks of diarrhoea and ward closures.

Data was first gathered in 2012 to predict illnesses that could have affected the Olympic Games.

Gradually, Public Health England increased the scope and content and now carries out a comprehensive daily data collection across GP practices, 111, out-of-hours GPs and A&Es.

Regional winter operations teams are now feeding the information back into the system to help manage pressures and anticipate surges.

Furthermore, the data will be used along with information such as weather forecasts to anticipate demand for the week or so ahead. Additionally, the NHS has advised the public to take precautions to ensure they minimise the after-effects oextremelyme cold weather.

The health service has made extensive preparations for winter than ever before and kept record levels of flu vaccinations to cater to the aged.

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NHS England medical director for acute care Prof Keith Willett said: “The impact major outbreaks of these illnesses can have on our hospitals cannot be underestimated – leading to whole wards having to be closed, with the loss of beds just when we need them most.

“We can look at the trends across all of the PHE health data sources and try to anticipate surges in demand.”

Public Health England medical director Prof Paul Cosford said: “It is widely known that every year we see an increase in illness during the winter, and this means we need to do all we can to support the NHS during this time of increased pressure.

“Our world-leading surveillance systems can track serious upsurges as and when they’re beginning to emerge and support central coordination of NHS resource.”