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New rapid research projects explore easing NHS ‘winter pressures’

woman blowing nose with tissue

Published: 23 January 2023

A programme of rapid research projects is helping patients by looking at how to ease NHS ‘winter pressures’.

The studies have been launched by Health Data Research UK (HDR UK), with funding from NIHR. The 16 projects cover a range of data-driven approaches to identify pressures in the healthcare system. Each explores the causes of these pressures and how to address them.

Informing policies

The projects include studies aiming to ease strain on emergency services. One study uses hospital data to speed up patient flow through and out of emergency departments.

Another uses an analytical approach called ‘machine learning’. This predicts infection peaks with the common bug, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV). RSV can cause serious illness in young children and put pressure on paediatric intensive care units.

Other projects will investigate the impact of cold and damp homes on people’s health. This will help inform policies to protect the most vulnerable and avoid knock-on impacts on the NHS.

Findings published later this year

Each project will generate findings inside a few months so they can be implemented for future winters. The studies will start this month (January) and produce results by the end of March. They will publish their findings later this year.

Dr Mary De Silva, Deputy Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), which sponsored the projects, said: “Research plays a key role in helping us predict and understand the pressures our health and social care services face.

"Winter is an especially busy time for the NHS, and these projects aim to harness the power of routinely collected healthcare data to understand what is causing the pressures, and crucially to provide new solutions that can be swiftly turned into working practice."

Professor Cathie Sudlow, Chief Scientist at HDR UK – the UK’s institute for health data science, which is delivering the projects – said: “As a doctor who has treated patients in the emergency department, I am all too aware of the enormous challenges faced by the healthcare system this winter.

“By using existing data, research teams, and infrastructure these projects are able to respond rapidly to evolving pressures on the NHS. Within three months, they will have homed in on key pain points in the health service, and developed evidence-led recommendations on how best to manage resources and prevent unnecessary illness through the winter.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: “We are harnessing the spirit of innovation that delivered the COVID vaccine rollout to promote cutting-edge research aimed at tackling the winter pressures on our NHS.

“Backed by £800,000 of government funding, these pioneering projects will rapidly collate data and use the latest analysis techniques to find ways of reducing hospital stays, preventing illness and freeing up staff time."

For a full list of projects being delivered under the programme, please visit the HDR UK website.

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