First fax machines, now pagers - the Health Secretary continues to draw his red lines for NHS tech

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez February 24, 2019
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has this weekend announced that all NHS Trusts will be required to phase out pagers by the end of 2021.

Matt Hancock Health Secretary NHS
Matt Hancock, Health Secretary

That National Health Service (NHS) is in the midst of a technology shake-up, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock continuing to issue mandates, ultimatums and making announcements about the role of digital in the future of care delivery.

This weekend, Hancock announced that pagers will be phased out by the end of 2021.

Whilst we have remained sceptical about Hancock’s approach, it can’t be denied that the Health Secretary is doing more than any other Minister in recent years to change the status quo.

Recent announcements include the banning of fax machines across the NHS, whilst also assuring staff that it’s okay and safe to use email.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said:

“Every day, our wonderful NHS staff work incredibly hard in what can be challenging and high-pressured environments. The last thing they need are the frustrations of having to deal with outdated technology – they deserve the very best equipment to help them do their jobs.

“We have to get the basics right, like having computers that work and getting rid of archaic technology like pagers and fax machines. Email and mobile phones are a more secure, quicker and cheaper way to communicate which allow doctors and nurses to spend more time caring for patients rather than having to work round outdated kit.

“We want to build a health and care service which is fully able to harness the huge potential of technology. This will save lives, support hard-working staff and deliver the cutting-edge care set out by our Long Term Plan for the NHS.”

More significantly, Hancock announced the creation of NHSX - the health service’s first joint digital organisation, which will be responsible for setting national policy, developing best practice and setting standards for NHS technology. Comparisons between NHSX and the Government Digital Service are inevitably being made (which is a good thing).

The creation of NHSX comes off the back of Hancock’s recently released technology strategy for the NHS, which focuses on open standards, interoperability, user-led design and a cloud-first approach. The Health Secretary has said that vendors that don’t comply with the new playbook for NHS tech will be phased out in the coming years.

No more 90s tech

As noted above, NHS Trusts will be required to phase out pagers by the end of 2021, following Hancock’s announcement. All hospitals will be expected to have plans and infrastructure in place to ensure this is possible by the end of September 2020.

The Department of Health and Social Care has soda that staff will instead use modern alternatives, such as mobile phones and apps.

It pointed to a pilot project at West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (WSFT) in 2017, where junior doctors saved 48 minutes per shift and nurses 21 minutes on average by getting rid of pagers and replacing them with a messaging and calling system similar to WhatsApp (called Medic Bleep).

WSFT medical director, Nick Jenkins, said:

“As a global digital exemplar trust, we’re always keen to explore new digital opportunities that could improve experience for staff and patients.

“There is scope for Medic Bleep to be used for everything from arranging shift cover to sharing patient observations. For us, it’s about a digital tool helping our communications to become more efficient. Contact with other clinicians can be made much more easily than with a physical bleep, and responses are much quicker.

“All that time we save can be spent caring for patients, so we benefit, but more importantly, our patients benefit too.”

The NHS uses approximately 130,000 pagers at an annual cost of £6.6 million. Most mobile phone companies have phased out support for pagers, leaving only one provider in the UK. This means a single device can cost up to £400.

The Department notes that pagers only offer a one-way form of communication, where the recipient is unaware of who is contacting them, the reasons why, or the level of urgency. In addition, pagers do not support the sharing of information between staff on the move, with mobile phones and apps able to do this more quickly at a reduced cost.

However, NHS Trusts will be allowed to keep some pagers for emergency situations, such as when WiFi fails or when other forms of communication are unavailable.

My take

Although £6 million a year on pagers seems like a lot of money, within the context of a budget of £110+ billion a year, it’s peanuts. But that’s not what’s important here. It’s not about the money, really. Hancock is doing the right thing in that he is drawing red lines for the NHS, forcing it to think differently about its approach for delivery, whilst also introducing support mechanisms (a strategy, NHSX, etc). It’s up to Trusts to figure out what alternatives work for them, within the confines of NHS’s digital framework. Hopefully, this sort of thinking and approach will lead to better care for patients, a better experience for nurses and doctors, as well as reduced costs.