NHS takes a small digital step into the 21st century - with bigger ones to come

Here is our quote of the week: “We spend £8m a year on paper. We spend £2m a year on envelopes. We can save lives, save staff time and cut costs by using an extraordinary piece of technology that has the ability to allow two people to communicate instantaneously, and to allow groups of people to communicate instantaneously. If you take the result of someone’s test you can immediately communicate those results with the analysis, to the patient and the patient can reply. It’s called email. I don’t know whether any of you have heard of it.”

Don’t adjust your eyesight, the date on this blog post is correct, and no, you haven’t fallen through a tear in the fabric of space and time and found yourself in 1989 by mistake – although if you were reading Computer Weekly 20 years ago you probably saw very similar quotes from enlightened business leaders at the time.

The quote above was spoken on 13 February 2019. By what terrible luddite organisation, you may well ask? Has someone just introduced Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister for the 18th century, to a computer?

Well, not far off – a few rows of the House of Commons at most.

Those words were spoken, dripping with sarcasm, by secretary of state for health and social care Matt Hancock, announcing a new policy to use email by default for NHS England to communicate with patients. Therein lies the scale of the challenge in digitising the NHS.

How often have our highly tech-literate readers – and indeed, most of the highly tech-literate UK population – tutted and raised their eyebrows at the inability of their GP or hospital doctor to simply send them an email? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and start suggesting instant messaging.

And yet still there was scepticism from some NHS dinosaurs about the wisdom of a policy that promises patients the ability to choose if they prefer to continue receiving paper letters.

Of course, email has to be secure – especially for such personal information as medical tests – but modern email can be made secure, and anyway shouldn’t patients have the choice?

Meanwhile, the NHS is working on an app that’s in trials, which it hopes will become the digital front door to the health service, using APIs to plug into third-party applications and data, as well as GP patient records, appointment bookings, prescriptions and other services. If it works, it’s the ideal way to help deliver digital health – but its biggest challenges will be changing NHS culture, let alone making the technology function correctly. Don’t tell the dinosaurs though – better still, send them an email.

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