NHS Innovation Challenges - time to celebrate!

When you think of saving lives, the wobbliness of ripe cheese probably isn't the first thing that springs to mind. But maybe that's why you're not one of this year's NHS Innovation Challenge winners.

Headlines about the NHS these days always seem to focus on the disasters - A&E waiting times, the latest bed crisis, missed diagnoses. But behind the scenes, there are plenty of initiatives designed to improve detection rates and treatment for a vast array of patients. These are celebrated every year with the announcement of the NHS Innovation Challenge prizes, which is where our cheese comes in.

One of the winners of this year's prizes was a Nottingham-based scheme to pick up potential problems with the liver at an early stage, allowing treatment to be targeted before damage becomes irreversible. One of the tools used in the GP-based scheme was a form of 'fibroscan' - a machine that effectively fires a kind of electronic elastic band at an object and measures the 'wobble' that it makes. First developed to measure the ripeness of cheese (by the French, you won't be surprised to hear!), the potential benefits of an accurate measure of the stiffness of the liver much more accurately than traditional blood tests soon became clear.

In London, news about bicycles usually involves cyclists dragged under the wheels of lorries or road rage from red-light-jumping, lycra-clad commuters on bikes. But the NHS Innovation awards highlighted a team of ambulance 'first responders' on bicycles, working to cut emergency response times and increase survival rates in people suffering heart attacks. In Dorset, the humble pelvic floor is the target of a FAST (Fast Assessment, Start Treatment) initiative designed to cut waiting times for women with stress incontinence.

As we live for longer every decade, the spectre of dementia looms ever larger. There has already been good news about dementia this year - a study spread over 20 years has recently shown that while the risk of dementia does increase with age, adults today may be 22% less likely to develop dementia than their parents were (1). But there are about 800,000 people in the UK living with dementia, and waiting times for assessment and treatment are hugely variable. One of the initiatives recognised by the NHS Innovation Challenge saw GPs in Staffordshire leading a 'joined-up' service which has cut the time for diagnosis from three years to a month, while saving £500,000 a year. In Greenwich, supporting carers better is helping to keep dementia patients in their own homes for longer and in Worcestershire, services are targeting both patients and their families to help them cope from the outset.

This is all very worthy, but how does it relate to you if you don't live in Nottingham, or Poole, or Staffordshire? Many previous Innovation Challenge prize-winning ideas have been rolled out across the country, and you or your family might have benefited from these ideas without even knowing it.

Let's be thankful that mighty oaks from little acorns grow.


1) Matthews F et al. A two-decade comparison of prevalence of dementia in individuals aged 65 years and older from three geographical areas of England: results of the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study I and II. Lancet 2013; 382 (9904): 1405-1412

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