£45m bid to improve QEII Hospital

The Urgent Care Centre entrance at The New QEII Hospital in Welwyn Garden City. Picture: Alan Davies

The Urgent Care Centre entrance at The New QEII Hospital in Welwyn Garden City - Credit: Alan Davies

A multi-million-pound plan to improve Welwyn Garden City's New QEII Hospital has been put to NHS England for approval.

In October, the government earmarked the QEII as one of 40 new ‘community diagnostic centres’ across the country. On Wednesday (January 12), the East and North Herts NHS Trust board approved a five-year £45m business case that hopes to cut waiting times and improve diagnostic services.

That business case – including the bid for funding – will now be considered by NHS England.

It comes as some services at QEII have been recently stripped back. Due to "low overnight numbers", the hospital's Urgent Care Centre reduced its opening hours from 24 hours a day to 8am to 10pm, which came into effect at the start of January.

When the change was first announced, Conservative councillor Drew Richardson (Hatfield Villages Ward) said he was "very disappointed" by the decision.

Former Labour borough councillor Astrid Thorpe responded strongly: "Your party [the Conservatives] doesn't want the NHS, didn't vote for its creation, has taken away nurses' bursaries, has watched nurses lining up at food banks then given them an insulting 3 per cent pay rise after everything they've done and is generally bringing the NHS to its knees."

Local resident Syreeta Lesley said: "This is ludicrous. There are too many houses/flats being built and no infrastructure to support it."

If the plans for a new diagnostic hub are approved, the QEII will offer a wider range of imaging, testing and endoscopy services and provide longer opening hours.

Building on some services already offered at the site, the hub would include additional X-ray, CT, MRI and ultrasound scanning, as well as blood tests, biopsies and urine testing.

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It would offer ECGs, blood pressure monitoring and respiratory tests as well as procedures such as gastroscopy and colonoscopy. It could be used to increase access to cervical screening or breast cancer screening.

It would operate seven days a week from 8am to 8pm and will play a vital role in plans to increase diagnosis capacity, improve accessibility and reduce waiting times. Some services with extended hours could be available at the site by the end of the 2021/22 financial year.

In addition to the hub there are plans to add in a so-called ‘spoke’ centre elsewhere, where services such as ECHO, DEXA and ECGs would be on offer – with the later addition of CT and MRI scanning.

No location has yet been finalised but according to the report, the ‘preferred option’ is Nevells Road Health Centre in Letchworth.

The plans recognise the increasing demand for CT, MRI and PET-CT scans – as well as DEXA and ultrasound.

They would increase diagnostic capacity – and by moving elective diagnostics to a non-acute site it is suggested they could tackle widening health inequalities exacerbated by COVID-19 and cut waiting times.

“Early diagnosis is critical to supporting people to manage their conditions for better clinical, personal, and quality of life outcomes,” says the report to the trust board.

“Without developing, expanding, and transforming existing service provision and changing how it is delivered, there will inevitably be deepening challenges in terms of population health, elective recovery and widening health inequalities.”

According to the report diagnostic activity currently accounts for more than 85 per cent of clinical pathways.

It is ‘a crucial backbone’ in effectively diagnosing, treatment and managing people with healthcare needs. However, the report does note the existing difficulties in recruiting staff in some diagnostic areas. It acknowledges that if additional staff were not available, the delivery of the hub would be compromised.

But it notes that the trust has already started to take steps to mitigate the risk, including recruitment overseas.

“Initiatives such as targeting of overseas recruitment are being utilised however the services will need to develop a recurrent, sustainable workforce model to ensure that the service delivery model is not put at risk,” says the report.