One of New Labour’s most pernicious legacies – and there were many – was its failed NHS IT project which left our health service with a £10billion blackhole and a reliance on outdated technologies.
Even now, more than 8,000 fax machines are still being used by the NHS in England, the world’s biggest user of faxes.
When Matt Hancock took over as Health Secretary in July, I called on him through the Spectator to make the bold decision to consign NHS fax machines to their rightful home – a 20th century museum.
So, Saturday’s announcement that the bonfire has been lit under Labour’s ageing fax machines is welcome news. Hancock has confirmed that from next year the NHS is banned from buying new fax machines – and existing faxes must be phased out altogether by April 2020.
Axing the fax is good news. It means my vision for an entirely paperless NHS by 2028 is a step closer, enabling our health service to improve patient care, communicate more easily, and offer online booking for appointments, whilst saving money in back-office administration that can be re-directed to front line services.
As I highlighted in my Centre for Policy Studies report published earlier this year, the NHS estimates that £200 million a year is spent just on printing for the 120 million annual outpatient appointments that take place, a figure which does not even include the cost of postage. Nor does it account for therapy, diagnostics, primary care and mental health appointments – or patients who receive multiple letters.
Staggeringly the estimated annual cost to the NHS of just storing paper is between £500,000 and £1 million per Trust – money which could be spent instead on more doctors and nurses. There are around 200 NHS Trusts, which means that the NHS is spending around another £200 million a year merely on storing paper.
Shifting the NHS’ culture to digital first, and consigning faxes and paper to history, is key, and can be the catalyst for a wider transformation that would see patients given access to their medical records through a new NHS app, data shared between NHS bodies to improve diagnosis, and precision medicine and genomics embraced. With the end of the fax machine now in sight, Hancock is in fact laying the groundwork for further reforms in NHS technology which I called for in my report. The Health Secretary should now turn his attention to some of the other anachronistic hangovers from failed NHS technology upgrades.
Next in the firing line must be the pager, whose use is now almost exclusively limited to NHS hospitals. In fact, research shows there are still more than 100,000 in use across hospitals – NHS Trusts account for over 10 per cent of all pagers in circulation worldwide. These are all waiting to be flung onto the scrapheap.
Today, in hospitals around the country, pagers will bleep to call doctors to emergencies for which they have no further information or wider context to help them prioritise their response. Doctors are left with excruciating decisions to make about which emergency to attend when multiple bleepers sound, at times leaving patients in critical condition in the hands of junior colleagues while they rush to a landline phone – or a far-away ward – find out the scope and scale of the new emergency. Unwieldy, outdated, unsecure and unreliable, the NHS pager must be abolished.
Better systems are available. For instance, Hancock’s local West Suffolk Hospital has been pioneering ‘Medic Bleep’, an app that allows hospital and community staff to communicate in real time, sharing vital information and updates about patients accurately and safely. I saw the app in action when I visited the Hospital this month.
In addition, a new, secure WhatsApp-style messaging service for doctors and nurses, which I proposed in my report, would mean that clinicians would not have to resort to methods of communication that endanger patient confidentiality.
Scrapping NHS pagers would also complement another key promise made earlier this year: that all NHS computers will be upgraded to Windows 10 by 2020. The Health Secretary has placed interoperability at the heart of his vision for NHS technology and ensuring there is up-to-date and uniform software will ensure there is a better compatibility between hospital systems.
With over £20billion of extra funding per year – and the political will to take forward a modernisation agenda – today’s fax machine announcement is welcome news in itself, and also the catalyst for further NHS reforms. This must include the eradication of pagers, before moving on to building a fully digital NHS powered by apps, data and modern devices. The smartphone generation of patients deserve nothing less.