A lung health check service in north east London aims to find cancer early so patients have the best chance of successful treatment. Programme manager Meena Pawar explains how it works.
The Targeted Lung Health Check Programme offers free lung checks to people aged 55-74 who have smoked at some point.
It is a nationally funded programme from NHS England that the North East London Cancer Alliance – which is hosted by North East London ICB – has piloted in Barking & Dagenham. In a nutshell, the service is about finding out how well a patient’s lungs are working to rule out any serious conditions.
Ultimately, the programme aims to save lives. Lung cancer is one of the most common and serious types of cancer. More than 43,000 people are diagnosed with the condition every year in the UK.
However, it is treatable, especially if it’s found early. The earlier lung cancer is found, the easier it is to treat – and the more likely treatment will be effective. The challenge is that there are usually no signs or symptoms in the early stages of lung cancer. So people might feel fit and healthy and be unaware of what’s happening in their lungs.
The lung check programme helps us to find cancer early. Previously, there was no national screening programme for lung cancer as there is for breast, bowel and cervical. This programme helps to fill that gap.
Most of the time, nothing is found. But if there are any problems with how their lungs are working, such as cancer, finding out early can make treatment simpler and more successful.
A lung health check also promotes healthier lifestyles with advice about stopping smoking.
We wanted to pilot lung checks in one area initially. So we selected the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, as this borough has the highest rates of smoking in north east London.
We worked with local GPs in Barking & Dagenham to get them on board so we could offer this service to their patients. We then set about inviting patients – one GP practice at a time – to have an initial telephone appointment. This determines whether a lung health check appointment is suitable for the patient.
If it is, our team then books a face-to-face appointment for the patient to meet with a nurse. This takes place in our portable cabin in central Barking & Dagenham – in the Barking Sporthouse and Gym car park.
At this appointment, we ask the patient some questions about their breathing, overall lung health, lifestyle, and family and medical history. Their height and weight are also measured.
From this, the nurse will help the patient to decide if the test is right for them. If it is, they will have a low-dose CT scan in the portable scanning unit located next to the cabin where they have their face-to-face appointment.
Since the lung check programme went live in July 2022, we have scanned over 2,000 patients. During this first phase, we will be inviting over 14,000 residents from Barking & Dagenham to participate.
The main challenge has been ensuring that as many people as possible come forward for their appointment. This is even more challenging, given our diverse communities. There are barriers, such as English not being the patient’s first language.
We have addressed this in a number of ways. We have met with many local community and faith groups to inform them about the project. And we have produced materials in different languages. For example, our animated video is available in 17 different languages.
We have also promoted the lung check programme through various channels such as radio, posters and train stations, local newsletters and social media. The result has been one of the highest uptake rates in the country.
Nationally, 76% of lung cancers found through the programme have been at stage one or two, which is easiest to treat. It is a little early yet to share any data from our programme in north east London, but the early indication is that we are experiencing something similar.
Finding so many cancers at an early stage means the service has been an enormous success. Put simply, we are saving lives. Therefore, we plan to extend this service to all our boroughs across north east London.
The programme manager for the project is Meena Pawar from the North East London Cancer Alliance, which is hosted by North East London ICB, and the Clinical Lead is Dr Rebecca Taylor from Barts Health. Watch a video about the initiative here.