Hospital hopes AI will help cut five-year cancer backlog in Suffolk

A hospital in Suffolk is set to use artificial intelligence to help cut down the five-year cancer backlog.

A hospital in Suffolk is set to use artificial intelligence to help cut down the five-year cancer backlog. File photo. - Credit: PA

Hospital chiefs are hoping artificial intelligence will help cut the cancer backlog in Suffolk.

Analysis from cancer charity Macmillan found that the backlog in England will not be cleared until September 2027 at the earliest.

Charity bosses say this is four years later than previous estimates as hospitals are not seeing as many patients as they had hoped.

While hospital bosses are unable to say exactly when they expect the backlog to clear, East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust (ESNEFT) saw nearly 9,000 more patients in the financial year 2021/22 compared to 2020/21.

And bosses say they are currently seeing referral numbers somewhere between 23-26% above pre-pandemic levels.

Ipswich Hospital/Colchester Hospital/West Suffolk Hospital. Picture: Archant

Ipswich Hospital/Colchester Hospital/West Suffolk Hospital. - Credit: Archant

A spokesman for West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust praised staff for working "tirelessly" throughout the pandemic, and said: "At West Suffolk Hospital, we are offering extended clinics, such as Saturday appointments as one of the ways to increase the number of patients who can be seen.

"We’re also harnessing artificial intelligence to help spot signs of cancer. An example of this is using technology to analyse changes to moles or lesions which could be a sign of early skin cancer.

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“Using this kind of artificial intelligence technology alongside our highly skilled teams is massively increasing the numbers of patients we can see and as such is reducing patient waiting times.

The spokesman added: "We are doing everything we can to treat patients as quickly as possible.”

Neill Moloney, acting chief executive of ESNEFT

Neill Moloney, deputy chief executive of ESNEFT - Credit: Andy Abbott

Neill Moloney, deputy chief executive at ESNEFT, said: "We have kept vital cancer diagnostic services and all urgent cancer treatment running throughout the COVID-19 pandemic."

Mr Moloney explained the trust had seen a "significant rise" in the number of patients being referred with some cancers such as colorectal or skin cancer, meaning the number of patients waiting longer than 62 days for treatment was higher than pre-pandemic.

But, he added: “In other specialities – such as breast, gynaecology, and head and neck – the number of patients waiting longer than 62 days is less than it was pre-pandemic. 

“We have recovery plans in place to tackle our backlog which include increasing diagnostic capacity, running additional clinic lists, working with primary care colleagues to make sure all pre-referral diagnostics are completed for more efficient triage and the appointment of a pre-diagnosis clinical nurse specialist to support patients who may not, for many reasons, be able to proceed quickly through a cancer pathway.

“If you, or someone you know, are worried about any symptoms which could be due to cancer, please contact your GP as soon as possible and if you need to come to hospital for tests, our teams are here for you.”