Scrap surgical masks and robots to help save NHS £150m

That’s the view of Imperial College London experts who have carried out a review on cost-cutting measures the cash-strapped health service can make.

Surgical masks and robotic operations are a waste of NHS money and should be scrapped to help save the NHS £150million a year. Researchers from the Department of Surgery and Cancer, found 71 commonly performed procedures or practices that are costly but make little or no difference to patients’ safety.

It comes as the NHS’s financial watchdog warned lives are being cut short because hospitals are having to ration routine operations. It was reported yesterday that Jim Mackey, head of NHS Improvement, said the health service was ‘juggling hand to mouth’ and having to ‘deprioritise’ non-urgent surgery.

A team of university researchers

The team also advise that robotic surgery has ‘little or no advantage’ compared with traditional keyhole operations. They recommend axing surgical masks to save the NHS £150,000 a year because there is ‘no evidence’ to show that they prevent infections.

Scrap hernias and other procedures

The study – published in the British Journal of Surgery – involved a review of 1,500 research papers into the benefits of procedures. It also found hernia repair operations – costing the NHS £28 million a year – were being carried out for people with few symptoms who do not get much benefit from them.

Additionally, it suggested using CT scans to diagnose appendicitis could save the health service £4million.

The report said they had little benefit above and beyond the traditional blood tests and hands-on pressure checks by doctors. The researchers found evidence that surgeons were overusing endoscopes, costing the NHS nearly £42 million a year.

They say the luminated, optical instruments are regularly used to check in the stomach, bowel or throat for evidence of cancer even when a diagnosis is improbable.

And stopping the use of enemas before colorectal surgery could reduce the annual budget by £100,000.

A further £72 million a year could be saved if doctors switched to a better method of gallstone removal called an index cholecystectomy, which is said to prevent complications and reduce hospital re-admissions.

‘Significant’ savings 


The NHS is struggling to meet the needs of the rising, ageing population on top of having to pay for more expensive new medicines and procedures. Although the Government has recently injected more cash – an extra £8 billion was promised by 2020 – healthcare leaders say this wont be enough.

But the NHS has also been accused of wasting its money and figures only last week showed it was losing £1 billion to fraud. A separate analysis last month showed hospitals’ inefficient operating theatres were wasting £130 million a year.

The researchers said their findings highlighted ‘significant’ potential saving methods that had not previously been recognised.

Study author and surgeon Humza Malik wrote: ‘An expected £30 billion funding gap is expected by 2020 in the NHS.

‘This provides motivation to identify and reduce the use of healthcare interventions that deliver little benefit and which could be substituted with less costly alternatives without affecting safety, and quality of care.

‘Stopping low-value services represents a significantly greater opportunity for efficiency savings than thought previously.’

Independent professional body The Royal College of Surgeons recognised the need for improved efficiency.

A spokesperson said: ‘NHS finances are currently stretched to their absolute limits, so it is important that surgeons look carefully at how they can improve efficiency and scale back surgical interventions that deliver little benefit to patients.

‘While the authors of this study have focused on general surgery, the principles could probably apply to every surgical specialty.’

Patient groups’ concern

However a patients group said that while it too appreciated the pressures the NHS is under, it was concerned that cost-cutting recommendations would deny patients who genuinely benefit from these procedures.

Rachel Power, Chief Executive of the Patients Association, said: ‘The NHS is currently in a phase of reducing what it offers as a consequence of underfunding by central government – while this paper is only an academic exercise so far, it is very possible that NHS England might find the idea of limiting “low value” surgery attractive.

‘If it goes down that road, we would offer the same caution as we have for its current initiative on “low value” medicines: in principle this could be a sensible matter of “good housekeeping”, but any changes must be undertaken with the full involvement of patients, and without accidentally limiting access to effective treatments that meet patients’ needs.’

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