An innovative new pilot scheme has launched in the West Midlands aiming to give patients the ability to undergo a procedure to detect the causes of digestive or stomach complaints in the privacy of their homes.

Patients awaiting an endoscopy (a procedure whereby a camera is fed into the bowel through a thin tube to detect signs of issues such as cancer) will soon be able to undertake a similar, less invasive procedure from the comfort of their own homes. 

West Midlands 5G (WM5G), NHS Arden and GEM CSU, University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire, and CorporateHealth International are exploring how a pill-sized camera, enabled by 5G could be used to deliver a colon capsule endoscopy (CCE) at home under medical guidance.

Working with specialist connectivity partners, the pilot will develop the CCE Smartbox, a device that can be used independently in patient’s homes. Supported by 5G, the Smartbox will both capture and transmit images of the bowel without the need for a hospital setting.

As of April 2021, there were 187,000 patients scheduled for an endoscopy in hospitals in the UK, many of whom are on waiting lists for their procedures. It is hoped that the development of the 5G-connected Smartbox will reduce this bottleneck through self-administration of the test. 

Although this kind of device has been available to patients for around 15 years, self-administration at home has not yet been trialled at scale, with 5G connectivity the hope is to make more widespread adoption of this technology possible.

In addition to real-time transmission of the images captured, faster 5G internet will also enables the use of a ‘virtual assistant’ that can provide answers and guidance to the patient while clinicians can track and monitors the equipment throughout the process. It is anticipated the adoption of 5G to enable home testing will reduce waiting times and speed up the process of identifying irregularities and any subsequent treatment. 

CCE offers a range of advantages, including providing patients with less invasive and more flexible testing, and potentially having their symptoms investigated sooner. Clinical staff will be able to save time and cost while increasing patient satisfaction, enhancing efficiency of the service, and providing test results to patients sooner. 

West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street said: “This is a phenomenal innovation and shows just what a difference 5G can make to people’s everyday lives.

“I made a clear promise to explore new technological solutions to some of our most complex challenges – including widening access to healthcare – and that’s exactly what we’re hoping tablet endoscopies can help achieve by speeding-up a diagnosis, bringing care closer to home, and giving people the best chance of treatment and survival.

“This innovation demonstrates why winning the competition to become the country’s first large-scale 5G testbed was mission critical for the West Midlands and WM5G is continuing to build on this by supporting the practical application of this state-of-the-art technology.”

Ramesh Arasaradnam OBE, Senior gastroenterologist at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire, said: “Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK with around 20,000 deaths each year. We also know that if detected early, the prognosis is good.’’ 

“Each year, over 2 million endoscopies are scheduled to take place through the NHS, but the level of demand combined with limited clinical capacity has resulted in a backlog. This has been exacerbated by COVID-19 as endoscopy rooms require additional cleaning between procedures, limiting the number of appointments that can be handled in a day.

“Through the application of 5G technology, it is feasible that patients can swallow the capsule and undertake the whole process in the comfort of their own homes. As we strive to build the evidence base, we believe that many of these procedures could potentially be undertaken each year easing the burden on the NHS and reducing stress and uncertainty for patients.”

James Cameron, Chief Operating Officer at CorporateHealth International UK said: “The key to success is working with such innovation-driven partners. This project helps create new technologies that can deliver digestive disease diagnostics in patients’ own homes. Trials, powered by our platform, will start imminently where technology and patient-to-clinician process evaluation will be conducted diligently to ensure the best possible outcome for all.

“After the evaluation period, we will be delivering a report on the findings from the patient trial group, analysing the effectiveness and safety of the at-home procedures and 5G connectivity.” 

Sally Eason, Associate Director of Digital Transformation at NHS Arden and GEM CSU said: “Working closely with the project partners, clinicians and patients, we will design and deliver an evaluation solution that encompasses the results and learnings from the trial to help produce a robust evidence base to inform future use of CCE self-administration as part of the patient pathway.”

Self-administration is believed to close a critical gap in the strategy to scale CCE across the whole country. However, it can also provide a platform and case-for-change for adjacent technologies to rapidly conduct tests in the home of the patient, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) assessments, infection measurements or SARS-CoV-2 tests.

Robert Franks, Managing Director of WM5G concluded: “5G holds the ability to revolutionise the way we think about healthcare making it more patient-centric. This trial will show it is not only possible to transform how we conduct investigative procedures, but to also make it more efficient and intuitive for the clinician to analyse the findings.

“COVID-19 has made it crystal clear we need to seek more ways in which remote monitoring and assessments are conducted. This will accelerate the pace of which patients can be seen, reducing unnecessary stress and worry and ease the pressure on hospitals and staff without impacting on the quality of care.” 

This 5G project follows two further trials within the West Midlands exploring how 5G can support the more intuitive and patient focused healthcare and work alongside other national projects to improve endoscopy care. 

If proven, the 5G capability could one day be paired with AI technologies to help clinicians analyse of the images and video footage recorded. This would mean even faster identification of polyps, the precursors to cancer and other irregularities, than currently possible through manual review.