WEATHER experts from the Met Office have teamed up with doctors from St George’s Hospital to help them predict the number of patients needing treatment over the winter months.

According to the scheme which began in November, the hospital receives two forecasts a week from the UK’s Met Office. Each forecast contains an estimate of the number of patients that will be seen by hospital staff over the next seven days.

Results from a previous Met Office pilot found the forecasts to be 65 per cent accurate at predicting levels of hospital activity.

The reports are seen by hospital doctors as an indispensable early warning system that allows them to channel resources and staff into the clinical areas that will be affected most by changing weather conditions.

The data is also used by nurses in the community to protect up to 400 patients with respiratory diseases from the cold before it has a chance to set in.

“Changes in weather often lead to a busy time for the NHS,” says consultant pediatrician Murray Bain, one of the doctors involved in the pilot.

“We know for example that a drop in temperature can lead to a rise in respiratory problems caused by influenza and bronchitis, and icy conditions often lead to more patients needing treatment for fractures and broken bones after falling and slipping over.

“The forecasts have the potential to help us prepare for an increase in workload and target resources at the departments that need them most.”

The seven-day forecasts are generated by an advanced statistical program that analyses climate data, rates of infectious diseases and hospital activity.

St George’s is one of 26 hospitals taking part in this year’s trial. Results from the pilot will be used to improve the accuracy of future health predictions.

“Although the pilot is still in its early stages,” continues Dr Bain,” we have found the forecasts to be reasonably accurate at predicting future numbers of patients, particularly children and patients with respiratory problems.”

The project began on 1 November 2004 and ends in March.