Black Country NHS innovates through winter

New facilities, exciting digital innovations and thousands of extra appointments are just some of the ways the NHS in the Black Country has been working to manage unprecedented pressures this winter. 

The Black Country was one of the best performing areas in the West Midlands for urgent care during December, despite record levels of demand. The system had some of the lowest A&E waiting times in the region, even though local emergency departments saw nearly 20,000 more patients than they did in December 2021. 
Health leaders from across the hospital, primary care and community sectors have been working together to stand up a wide range of new ways of working, all aimed at supporting the NHS to help patients during the winter months. 
These include: 
  • A system control centre that monitors demand on urgent care services across the Black Country in real time and supports NHS trusts to help each other during times of peak pressure.
  • Updated configurations in hospitals to improve patient flow, including a new ambulance receiving centre in Wolverhampton and a dedicated discharge hub in Sandwell.
  • “Virtual wards” are freeing up hospital beds by enabling suitable patients to be monitored from the comfort of their own home and have cared for more than 3,500 adults and children to date. Dudley’s pilot virtual children’s ward was a national first and has since been rolled out to all other Black Country trusts.
  • New ways of working in primary care, including more than 5,000 evening and weekend GP appointments every week, plus additional appointments with a range of professionals to ensure people are seen by the right clinician for their level of need. These changes mean around 4,000 more primary care appointments are now being delivered each month than before the pandemic.
  • Dedicated community hubs offering same day, face-to-face GP appointments for children and young people with respiratory symptoms (those affecting the lungs and airways). The pilot hub in Sandwell saw more than 9,000 patients in its first year and was able to add extra capacity to support worried parents during the recent rise in strep A infections.

Richard Beeken, Chief Executive of Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust and urgent and emergency care lead for the Black Country, said: “The NHS and our partners across the system were in no doubt that this was set to be our most challenging winter yet, but it is our duty to work together to ensure we continue to deliver the best services we can for local people.

“I am proud of how our staff across the Black Country have stepped up to see us all through this pressured period – from those who devised and embedded innovations that have fundamentally improved how we deliver urgent care, through to those working flat out on the front lines providing compassion and quality care to patients needing our services. However, we recognise that some patients are waiting for longer than we would want, and we apologise for this.”

Jonathan Fellows, Chair of NHS Black Country Integrated Care Board, said: “This has been a tough winter: we have seen hundreds hospitalised by aggressive strains of the flu, a major cold snap that impacted the health of some of our most vulnerable citizens, a surge in strep A infections in children that was very worrying for parents and carers, and all while COVID-19 was still circulating in the community.

“I want to thank all our NHS staff for their hard work this winter, as well as the local people who are supporting us at this time by using our services appropriately. The NHS is very much open and here for you, so if you are worried about anything please don’t hesitate to come forward – use NHS 111 online in the first instance to get fast advice and ensure you’re seen by the right expert at the right time.”

Doctors urging parents to support the HARMONIE Study

Doctors from across the West Midlands are asking parents of newborn babies, up to 12 months old, to support a new respiratory virus study.

The HARMONIE Research Study follows on from other completed research and looks at how strongly babies can be protected against serious illness from a Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) infection by giving them a single antibody dose.

The antibody used in the study has recently been approved by both the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

This preventative solution is the result of many years of research by Sanofi and AstraZeneca and has already been given to more than 3000 babies.

However, more research is needed to help find more options to combat RSV infections which are a leading cause of infant hospitalisation and serious illness in otherwise healthy babies.

Dr Lucy Martin – Joint Acting Medical Director at Dudley Integrated Health and Care NHS Trust said:

“For some babies, an RSV infection can cause severe problems and it is difficult to identify which babies will require medical care due to the unpredictability of the illness.

“The study we are conducting is being run from the Brierley Hill Health and Social Care Centre at the Research Hub within High Oak Surgery.  Anyone can take part, your baby doesn’t have to be a registered patient at High Oak.

“We would urge parents to reach out and take part – you can make a real impact on how RSV is managed in the future.”

For more information, or to take part in the study, please visit

Free flu vaccination for people with respiratory conditions

People in the Black County living with respiratory conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), are being reminded to come forward for a free flu vaccine.

Asthma is a common lung condition that causes breathing difficulties and can affect people of all ages. Those with asthma often have sensitive, inflamed airways that lead to symptoms like coughing, wheezing, feeling breathless, or a tight chest.

COPD is the name for a group of lung conditions that causes breathing difficulties in adults, including emphysema (damage to the air sac in the lungs) and chronic bronchitis (long-term inflammation of the airways).

People with asthma are more likely to have an asthma attack if they catch the flu virus, and those with COPD are more likely to develop pneumonia. These complications can sometimes be life-threatening and lead to hospitalisation.

With almost 79,000 people living with asthma and more than 26,000 people living with COPD in the Black Country, health chiefs are encouraging those eligible to come forward for a flu vaccine if they haven’t already done so.

Dr Max Matonhodze, Respiratory Consultant at Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust, said:

“If you have a respiratory illness such as COPD or asthma, it’s really important that you look after yourself, especially in the winter when the weather gets colder and respiratory viruses such as the flu start to circulate.

“Flu puts extra strain on your lungs, which can have a significant effect on people with lung conditions, making serious illness more likely.

“The flu vaccine is the safest and most effective way to help protect against flu and is designed to help protect those who are most at risk from developing complications from the virus. That’s why we are asking all eligible individuals to get their flu jab today if they haven’t taken up the offer of getting it already.”

To date, more than 50% of all those in the Black Country with an eligible long-term health condition have received their free flu vaccination, but there are thousands more who can still come forward.

Flu is in circulation throughout the winter months, so it is never too late to take up the offer of vaccination, even if you have previously declined and have changed your mind.

Viv Marsh, specialist asthma nurse and Black Country clinical lead for children and young people’s asthma transformation, said:

“Many people with asthma are used to managing their health well, but may not realise that flu can hit fast. Even if their respiratory condition is mild, flu can trigger symptoms that leave them fighting for breath and increase the risk of a life-threatening asthma attack.

“The flu virus is highly infectious and can also spread very quickly among children. Even healthy children can become seriously ill from flu, however, it can be more serious for children with health conditions such as asthma.

“When you have the flu, airways become more inflamed, and more mucus is produced. This means there’s less room for the air to get through which can make it harder to breathe and can trigger asthma symptoms.

“Having the flu vaccination is the best way to stay protected against flu. For children, the vaccination is usually given via a nasal spray into each nostril which is quick and painless, so I’d encourage parents and carers with eligible children to come forward as soon as they can.”

The nasal spray vaccine offers the best protection for children aged two to 17 years. They will be offered a flu vaccine injection if the nasal spray vaccine is not suitable for them. Injected flu vaccines are also safe and effective.

For more information on the flu vaccine for children, click here, and for more information on asthma, click here.

For more information on the flu vaccine for long-term conditions, visit the NHS website here. Those eligible may be contacted by their GP practice to book an appointment. Alternatively, vaccinations can be booked at a local pharmacy via the National Booking System.

Staying well in cold weather

Local health chiefs have issued important guidance following the cold weather alert.

The Met Office, in conjunction with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), has issued a level 3 cold weather alert from Monday 16th January 2023, as severe winter weather is forecast.

A level 3 alert is issued when temperatures are expected to drop to 2 degrees or less for 48 hours or longer, and/or widespread ice and heavy snow is predicted.

In the Black Country, forecasters have predicted a fall in daytime temperatures with widespread overnight frosts, with temperatures reaching below freezing this week. The level 3 alert is in place until 9.00 am on Friday 20 January.

People are encouraged to take extra precautions to keep safe while the alerts are in place, such as checking on vulnerable friends and neighbours, keeping food and medications in stock and ensuring homes are adequately heated.

Dr Ananta Dave, Chief Medical Officer for NHS Black Country Integrated Care Board, said:

“Taking extra care during cold weather is really important, particularly for people who are more vulnerable to suffering ill health due to the cold, such as babies and very young children, older people, pregnant women and people with pre-existing medical conditions.

“It is recommended that we should heat our homes to at least 18 Celsius in winter as this minimises risks to our health. If you can’t heat all the rooms you use, heat the living room during the day and your bedroom just before you go to bed.

“Try to avoid going out in cold icy weather but if you do need to go outside wear shoes with slip-resistant grip and wear a few layers of thin clothing rather than one thick layer to trap in heat. It is also important that you have frequent hot food and drinks as these can help to keep you warm.

“Make sure you also take the current weather alert into account when planning any activity over the following few days and try to avoid exposing yourself to cold or icy outdoor conditions, especially if you are at a higher risk of cold-related illness or falls.

“We are also asking everyone to remember the needs of friends, relatives and neighbours who could be at risk during this period of cold weather. If you, or they, are eligible for a COVID-19 autumn booster or flu vaccination, please make sure you get it as soon as you can.”

For more advice on staying well in cold weather, visit the NHS website here.

Visit your local pharmacy this winter for dry skin

People in the Black Country are being reminded to make their local pharmacy the first port of call for dry skin this winter.

Dry skin can occur at any time of the year, but it can become more common as the weather becomes colder. It can appear at any age and, whilst it usually doesn’t present any serious problems, it can be associated with other medical conditions such as eczema, contact dermatitis, and psoriasis.

The skin is made up of many different layers and it forms a natural barrier to protect our body from the outside environment. To help protect the outer layer of the skin from losing water, the skin produces an oily substance called sebum. If the skin does not have enough sebum, it loses water which causes dry skin.

Common causes of dry skin include:

  • Excessive bathing
  • Showering, scrubbing the skin while washing, or harsh soaps that dissolve the protective layer of sebum
  • Environmental conditions that increase water loss, such as very hot, dry weather or central heating
  • Frequent exposure to wind and sun can evaporate water from the skin, making the surface feel itchy and dry
  • Decreased production of sebum, which is often a factor in the elderly.

To help reduce symptoms, emollients can be used to moisturise the skin. Emollients are moisturising treatments that are applied directly to the skin to soothe and hydrate it. There are various types of emollients that can be bought over the counter at your local pharmacy to reduce dryness, help with itching and soften cracks.

Stephen Noble, local pharmacist and Chief Officer of the Dudley Local Pharmaceutical Committee, said:

“Just like any other part of your body, your skin also needs to be looked after. Dry skin is a common condition for people of all ages, particularly during the winter when the skin is exposed to cold weather and lower levels of moisture in the air.

“Your local pharmacy should always be your first choice for help with dry skin. Pharmacists are highly trained experts in medicines, and they can offer you advice and treatments without you needing to see a GP.

“As well as getting the right medication from a local pharmacist, there are also lifestyle changes that can be made which can help to treat and prevent future outbreaks of dry skin. This includes stopping smoking, drinking plenty of water, reducing the length of your baths or showers, avoiding harsh soaps and bubble baths, and avoiding wearing synthetic materials for prolonged periods. Increasing humidity levels with a humidifier can also help as dry air increases the risk of dry skin.”

Patients registered with GP practices in the Black Country can also make use of the PharmacyFirst service. This service provides people who are exempt from prescription charges with free over-the-counter medicines, so they do not need to see a GP to receive the medication on prescription.

For more information on Pharmacy First and to find participating pharmacies, click here.

To find your nearest pharmacy and check opening times, visit here.