Ensuring that hospitals in England and North Wales are kept well stocked with blood is a major concern for the National Blood Service (NBS). But the problem is now being addressed with an innovative pilot scheme using SMS (Short Message Service) text messaging.
Blood has a shelf life of 35 days and platelets, which are used in the treatment of cancer, last just five days. As only 6% of the eligible population gives blood, keeping track of donors is a major consideration.
Traditionally, the NBS has relied on a system of postal reminders to keep in touch with its donors. But, according to NBS marketing initiatives manager Martin Weller, it was only getting a 10% response using this approach. "There was a huge amount of room for improvement," he says.
The NBS first started looking into using SMS about three years ago and approached BT Cellnet as a possible partner. However, Weller says the medium was not reliable enough at the time.
Then last year NBS was approached by mobile messaging firm Boltblue, and it decided to implement a pilot scheme involving students. Weller explains that more than 20,000 students give blood every year. The problem is they move around a lot and keeping track of them is particularly difficult.
The pilot scheme was launched at the end of last year, involving five universities and colleges in London and the South-East. The NBS found that the number of students responding to the SMS messages reminding them to give blood was 30% higher than with postal reminder campaigns. A further trial involving 25 colleges and universities in the area achieved similar results.
As well as being more effective, the scheme was cheaper and more flexible, says Weller. The NBS can send five SMS messages for the cost of a second class stamp.
Weller points out that the scheme is permission-based. "There is no point in cold-calling people," he says. But the NBS hopes that viral marketing will prove effective, with student donors encouraging their peers to give blood.
The scheme is now open to every college in England and North Wales and next year the NBS plans to offer the scheme to every blood donor in the UK. But Weller says the NBS is "still cautious" and is making sure its systems can handle a national roll out before it proceeds any further.
The SMS service won't replace the system of postal reminders but will work beside it. "It is just another tool in the armoury," says Weller, "But it is relevant to the age group and it is more funky." The NBS is also considering using e-mail to contact regular blood donors.
Weller believes the SMS service will help maintain blood stocks and will prove cost-effective for both the NBS and the taxpayer. "I think it is really going to provide a regular and safe blood supply for the patients who need it," he says.