Alan Mak: Time to update NHS and ditch the fax machine

Would the scrapping of pagers and fax machines make the NHS more efficient?
Would the scrapping of pagers and fax machines make the NHS more efficient?
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THE NHS is our most valued public service. It has been there for me and my family and I am determined to ensure its continued success.

Last year’s celebrations to mark the NHS’s 70th anniversary highlighted some of the many breakthroughs achieved by scientists and doctors working for our NHS — breakthroughs such as proving the link between smoking and lung cancer, delivering the first in vitro fertilisation baby, and carrying out the world’s first liver, heart and lung transplant.

Is the NHS too reliant on outdated technology like pagers and fax machines?

Is the NHS too reliant on outdated technology like pagers and fax machines?

Those are just a few of the remarkable breakthroughs that have revolutionised healthcare, allowing us to live longer, healthier lives. Just as groundbreaking as some of the Health Service’s early achievements are those that we are seeing today, as a new wave of technological innovation transforms the way that healthcare is delivered.

These new breakthroughs are fuelled by artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, wearable devices and personalised medicine. By harnessing these fourth industrial revolution innovations and embracing new digital tools, we can turbo-charge our fight against cancer, heart disease, dementia and many other illnesses. That aim is echoed in the Government’s NHS long-term plan, which commits all NHS providers to achieving a core level of digitisation by 2024.

A digital-first NHS is something for which I have campaigned and which I included as a key recommendation in the report that I wrote on NHS technology with the Centre for Policy Studies last year. A digital-first NHS will mean seamless interactions between GPs, hospitals and community care. It will also mean patients not having to wait for appointments to be confirmed in the post and an end to paper records being lost. At its most cutting-edge, the key product of digitisation is personalised medicine, which takes into account a patient’s genetic profile and which will become a staple in the doctors’ toolbox. The future of healthcare is exciting and means that we must upgrade the NHS and its technology for the smartphone era.

Holding back the NHS from achieving that goal is an over-reliance on outdated technology. Equipment such as pagers and fax machines are a barrier to the NHS achieving its full potential. That is why I am introducing a Bill to ensure that NHS trusts, quangos and related organisations phase out fax machines and pagers.

Around 8,000 fax machines are used in the NHS today, making our health service the biggest consumers of fax machines anywhere in the world. These fax machines cause patients to miss appointments and hospitals to lose records, and they cost NHS bodies millions of pounds in paper storage every year, as well as being slow, unwieldy and hard to maintain.

Thankfully, some NHS trusts, such as Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, have started to axe the fax, but more hospitals ​need to follow. My Bill would go a step further by putting the target into law. As the Health and Social Care Secretary has pointed out, the rest of world has transitioned from fax to email. The NHS should not be left behind.

Pagers are equally outdated in our health service. Having been first patented for use in a hospital the year after the NHS was founded, back in the 1940s, the pager’s popularity peaked in the 1990s, when there were around 60 million in use.

In the time since, pagers have little changed, and their obvious limitations have meant that most have disappeared from use — everywhere, that is, except some parts of the NHS. Just one million pagers are now believed to be in use around the world, yet more than 100,000 of them — 10 per cent of the entire global stock – are to be found throughout the NHS. As a result of the pager’s many limitations — from allowing only one-way communication to the inability to send graphics – doctors and nurses are regularly turning to insecure instant messaging services to send patient information to colleagues without consent.

A recent British Medical Journal survey found that 97 per cent of clinicians have used insecure messaging systems to send data to colleagues. Such practice should not continue. Better alternatives are available, including WhatsApp-style messenger systems such as Medic Bleep, where senders can post detailed messages and see when they have been delivered and read. In fact, a trial of the device found that Medic Bleep saves nurses more than 20 minutes per shift, and doctors around 50 minutes per shift. The local NHS trust already estimates potential savings of £4.5m per year by freeing up the equivalent of 18 full-time nurses and 18 full-time junior doctors.

Across the whole NHS in England, that could save more than £1bn a year. That means more time for doctors and nurses to spend with patients and more money for frontline services.

Alan Mak is a Conservative MP. Born in York, he introduced a Prohibition of Fax Machines and Pagers Bill to Parliament. This is an edited version.