Oesophageal cancer

Innovative cancer test freeing capacity & cutting waiting lists, says NHS

An innovative ‘sponge-on-a-string’ test is helping the NHS rule out cancer earlier and free up crucial capacity for higher-risk patients to cut waiting lists.

Launched as a pilot during the pandemic, the test identifies patients with Barrett’s oesophagus which can be a precursor to oesophageal cancer and is typically diagnosed via more invasive endoscopy.

The so-called sponge-on-a-string test, however, involves the patient swallowing a small coated pill surrounded by sponge which, on its way back up, collects cell samples for analysis.

This can be done quickly and without the need for sedation.

NHS England (NHSE) says the sponge test has proven to be highly cost effective compared to the endoscopy alternative, with savings at around £400 per patient.

“…while the sponge on a string is small in size, it can make a big difference for patients…”

An evaluation of a selection of patients who underwent this procedure found that nearly eight in 10 discharged without the need for further testing, allowing more in-need patients vital time and attention.

A survey of more than 350 patients also showed that almost 19 in 20 patients feel mild or no discomfort at all during the test.

NHSE’s chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, says: “Thousands of people have now benefitted from this incredibly efficient test on the NHS – while the sponge on a string is small in size, it can make a big difference for patients”.

Pritchard adds that the capsule-sponge test is convenient for patients, and replaces the need for endoscopy which helps reduce waiting lists.

It is “just one example of many pioneering tools” trialled by the NHS to aid detection and diagnosis in recent years.

There are over 9,000 new cases of oesophageal cancer every year in the UK. NHSE’s pilot has tested more than 8,500 patients so far.

The test was developed by Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, director of the University of Cambridge’s early cancer institute.

“This is a major step forward to making this simple test more routinely available outside of clinical trials,” explains Prof Fitzgerald. “Timely diagnosis is vital for improving outcomes for patients.”

Image credit: iStock

NHE March/April 2024

NHE March/April 2024

A window into the past, present and future of healthcare leadership.

- Steve Gulati, University of Birmingham 

More articles...

View all
Online Conference


2024 Online Conferences

In partnership with our community of health sector leaders responsible for delivering the UK's health strategy across the NHS and the wider health sector, we’ve devised a collaborative calendar of conferences and events for industry leaders to listen, learn and collaborate through engaging and immersive conversation. 

All our conferences are CPD accredited, which means you can gain points to advance your career by attending our online conferences. Also, the contents are available on demand so you can re-watch at your convenience.

National Health Executive Podcast

Ep 42. Leadership in the NHS

In episode 42 of the National Health Executive podcast we were joined by Steve Gulati who is an associate professor at the University of Birmingham as well as director of healthcare leadership at the university’s Health Services Management Centre.