Alan Mak is the MP for Havant and is the Chairman of the APPG on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. His NHS Fax Machines and Pagers Bill is presented in Parliament today.
Conservatives have a long and proud record of supporting and investing in our NHS. As Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said when launching the new NHS Long Term Plan last month, the Health Service is “one of our proudest achievements” as a nation, and for over 40 of the NHS’ 70 years it has been under the care of Conservative Ministers.
Our Party has nurtured the NHS to serve generations of patients and the £20.5 billion a year delivered by the Long Term Plan is the biggest ever cash injection in its history. This means more investment in our hospitals, more doctors and nurses, and more resources to tackle major diseases. But extra funding alone won’t secure the NHS’s future. To boost productivity and improve patient care and safety, Conservatives must ensure that the NHS seizes the opportunities presented by new technologies too.
We have a duty to prepare the NHS for radical technological change, and in so doing, an electoral opportunity to strengthen our Party’s standing on the NHS by being the patients’ champion – harnessing technology to drive up clinical standards and improve patient care. That was the argument I made in my NHS technology report published last year by the Centre for Policy Studies and launched by the then Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. By adopting the new technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in the Health Service we can put patients at the heart of a reformed digital-first NHS.
Rightly, the Long Term Plan shares this ambition and sets out the Government’s vision for a modern NHS that uses digital tools to improve patient care and safety. This means pushing forward with an unabashed desire to change the culture of a large public service organisation that has not always been the quickest to adapt to innovation. Decades of underinvestment in our digital health infrastructure has left the NHS at risk of being unable to take full advantage of the new waves of technological breakthroughs that are already revolutionising healthcare – and indeed other aspects of our society and economy. Fuelled by artificial intelligence, Big Data, wearable devices and personalised medicines, these 4IR innovations are set to turbocharge our fight against cancer, heart disease, dementia and other diseases and illnesses.
The Long Term Plan includes a welcome commitment for the NHS to become fully digital and paperless within the next decade. This digital-first NHS would see seamless interactions between GPs, hospitals, and community care; patients not having to wait for appointment confirmations in the post; and an end to health records being lost through human error. Embedding 4IR technologies into the NHS would also drive improvements in detection rates, pioneer new treatments and ultimately deliver better patient outcomes. Meanwhile, precision medicines, personalised for each patient and taking into account an individual’s genetic profile, can be at the forefront of treating disease in the years ahead, becoming a staple in the doctors’ toolbox. Put simply, the future of healthcare is exciting – and has the potential to catch-up with the smartphone era and patients’ digital expectations if we give the NHS the right tools.
But holding back the NHS from achieving these outcomes is a stubborn reliance, in some areas, on ageing technology such as pagers and fax machines. While the Long Term Plan clearly sets out a desire to “axe the fax”, there remain 8,000 of them in use across the NHS making the Health Service the largest consumer of fax machines worldwide. These archaic machines cause patients to miss appointments, hospitals to lose records, and cost NHS Trusts millions of pounds in paper storage each year, as well as being slow, unwieldy, and hard to maintain.
Meanwhile, the pager, which reached the height of its popularity in the mid-1990s, provides doctors and nurses with a limited amount of information, sometimes no more than a bleep, as they tackle a multitude of complex situations on hospital wards. This has led to 97 per cent of doctors admitting in a British Medical Journal survey that they use instant messaging services such as WhatsApp as an alternative, despite these being banned due to concerns over patient confidentiality. Of the one million pagers believed to be left in use worldwide, around ten per cent of them are used in our Health Service.
Yet there are cheap and easy-to-use alternatives available to NHS Trusts. As the Health Secretary has rightly pointed out, e-mail could be used as a way of communicating without the need for paper. And instead of relying on pagers, there are several specialist WhatsApp-style messaging systems available to the NHS. These include Medic Bleep, an app which when trialled at West Suffolk Hospital was found to save £4.5 million worth of staff time largely because doctors and nurses don’t have to wait by a landline phone to respond to pager bleeps. I visited the Hospital to see Medic Bleep in action first hand (see film above) and witnessed its obvious versatility when compared to old-fashioned pagers. If replicated across the 227 NHS Trusts in England new digital messenger systems that replace pagers could potentially save the Health Service more than £1 billion every year which can be redirected to frontline services.
The availability of modern replacements, and the need to rapidly upgrade the Health Service’s technology base, are the reasons I’m introducing new legislation in Parliament today that would ban fax machines and pagers in our NHS by 2021. My National Health Service (Prohibition of Fax Machines and Pagers) Bill can be a firm foundation on which to build a digital-first NHS that fully harnesses the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that is taking place in healthcare, consigning fax machines and pagers to the scrapheap of history.
Equally importantly, I hope the Bill also sends a clear message that we Conservatives are serious about renewing our NHS for the future, coupling serious financial investment with determined renewal of the tools that our doctors and nurses use and the care patients receive. By investing in the best technology – and phasing out the worst – we can ensure our NHS continues to serve us well for the next 70 years and beyond.