First he declared war on fax machines within the NHS and now Health and Social Care Minister Matt Hancock is going after pen and paper. Hancock has said that ‘snail mail’ is less secure and more expensive than email, which should be a trusted method of communication across the NHS.
By way of background, Hancock was previously responsible for Digital over at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, before being promoted to the Department for Health last year. Since taking the job he’s been on a crusade to overhaul tech across the health service (which has been welcomed).
However, Hancock’s announcements sometimes seem to miss the mark - where he tends to play to the national media with headline grabbing announcements, rather than getting his hands dirty. Open standards and interoperable technology (which he is also pushing, to be fair) doesn’t gain quite the same traction as “ditch the pen and paper for email!”.
The Health Secretary was speaking at an NHS England conference this week, where he said that NHS organisations will be able to use any secure email provider - not just NHSMail - if it meets the required security settings. He said that this is so that NHS organisations can choose the best service for their needs and “email providers are encouraged to innovate”.
“Having to deal with outdated technology is hugely frustrating for staff and patients alike – and in many cases downright dangerous. A letter lost in the post could be the difference between life and death.
“We have signalled the end of archaic fax machines in hospitals and GP practices, and as of this year the NHS will no longer buy them. Our mission now is to make it as easy as possible for GPs to communicate safely and securely with their patients and colleagues.
“There is no reason why a doctor cannot email a patient confidentially, for example with their test results or prescription, rather than make them wait days for a letter or ask them to come into the surgery. The rest of the world runs on email – and the NHS should too.”
However, the announcement doesn’t seem to have gone down too well on Twitter, with people enjoyably pointing out to the Health Secretary that email, a decades old technology, perhaps isn’t the most innovative, smart or groundbreaking solution.
Just take a look at the reaction (some of which, admittedly, brought a smile to my face).
Email will becomes the default in the health service - moving away from faxes and letters. Because we can’t get the NHS into the 21st Century until we make proper use of 20 year old technology first - @MattHancock #epdw19
— Dominic Campbell (@dominiccampbell) February 13, 2019
Matt, I like a lot of what you're doing and saying on #Tech but email by default?! Email is one of the most inefficient ways of communicating and getting things done. The #NHS would collapse if it went email by default. #DigitalByDesign
— John Jackson (@johnjackson1066) February 13, 2019
We need an IT system that shares information across the health and social care spectrum. What we have is the silo mentality with individual systems that do not connect. Start here.
— Carol Munt (@muntma) February 14, 2019
So many issues. Where to start.
1. Email is not guaranteed for delivery
2. How does the email get into trouble patient record
4. Security, Rinse, Repeat
5. Stop supporting companies dedicated to undermining the NHS
— Frank Kilgour (@thebestbrew) February 13, 2019
Right idea, wrong implementation. Use messaging via the more secure apps such as myGP etc rather than emailing. Email addresses change quickly and typos can be wrong. Banks use app messaging, there’s a good reason why!
— HobbitsWife2 (@HobbitsWife2) February 13, 2019
Many will take legal action against the NHS if it uses email .. which anyone with even basic IT knowledge knows is totally insecure.
— Tim P. (@phizack) February 13, 2019
Not sure many of my patients actually have access to emails?? Think we should maybe concentrate on getting staff on the ground? This is coming from a nurse on his 6th long day in a row just to ensure we have a community nursing service #NHSCrisis #NHSLongTermPlan
— Andy Robinson (@AndyRobinson86) February 13, 2019
NO IT DOESN’T. Need much better design than emails ?♂️?♂️
— Colin Brown (@colinoscopy62) February 14, 2019
My bank does not email me a Bank statement for the same reason that HMRC does not email me a tax return and I dont want my medical details emailed to me. Email does not "boost cyber security"
— Dean Smith (@DeanoXX) February 13, 2019
To ensure some degree of balance, I should state that there were a lot of people tweeting in support of the announcement too. However, I think Hancock’s announcement is indicative of where technology goes wrong in the NHS. Yes, email is established and used widely. Yes, paper is slow, insecure and not reliable. Does that mean one should replace the other? Not necessarily. The NHS as an organisation has the option to do something better, not just introduce something ‘less worse’ than what came before.