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Rapid infection tests could boost patient care and flow amid mounting NHS pressures

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

A pioneering study has found tens of thousands of patient beds could be saved by the NHS every year by using a new rapid test.

Patients with suspected gastroenteritis were assessed with a rapid molecular test in the trial at Southampton General Hospital.

The test can give results in around an hour rather than 1-2 days with conventional testing. This means non-infectious patients can move out of isolation rooms much faster. It also means infectious patients can receive the best care.

Results published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases shows that almost a third of single room time was saved using the new test. This would free up around 40,000 isolation rooms per year if rolled out across the UK.

Isolation rooms are a limited resource in NHS hospitals with more patients needing them than rooms available.

Molecular tests

The study was designed and led by Professor Tristan Clark from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Southampton Biomedical Research Centre and University of Southampton.

Prof Clark, a Professor of Infectious Diseases, said:

“These results show that rapid molecular testing can help patients get their test results faster. This means they can get the care they need earlier."

He added: "Hospitals have a limited number of side rooms, so it is vital that patients who do not have transmissible infections are moved out of them as soon as possible.

"Our trial found that non-infectious patients could move out of isolation in around half a day, compared to two days if they had the standard test. This led to a 30% reduction in total side room use.

"This technology has the potential to become a routine tool to help ease pressures on the NHS."

What is gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis is an infection of your stomach or bowels.

The main symptoms include diarrhoea, sickness and stomach pain. The illness accounts for over one million visits to emergency departments and at least 130,000 hospital admissions in England every year.

Patients with these symptoms are cared for in isolation rooms, known as side rooms, while they await test results. This helps stop the spread of infection.

However, there are a limited number of side rooms on each ward and there are more patients requiring these facilities than are available.

Trialling a new test

Researchers recruited 278 patients at Southampton General Hospital between 2017 and 2022. They were randomly assigned to either receive the new rapid test or standard laboratory testing. The rapid test can detect a wide range of pathogens in a single test and was performed on a stool sample or a rectal swab.

The molecular point-of-care test (mPOCT) delivered much faster results, with an average time to results of 1.7 hours. The standard test took on average 44.7 hours.

These faster results directly led to a reduction in side room use.

The study also found the giving of inappropriate antibiotics was reduced by almost four days with the new test.

The study was supported by the NIHR Southampton Clinical Research Facility. It was funded by University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust.


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