Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has called for all NHS organisations to replace all paper-based and fax-based communications with email to "reduce delays, boost cyber security and cut wastage".
The use of email in all communications by NHS organisations will not only introduce efficiency, but will also enable all NHS organisations to securely communicate with each other, reduce delays, and communicate directly with patients to inform them about appointments.
The announcement follows a ban imposed on NHS organisations from buying fax machines from January this year. The decision to ban the use of fax machines and the elimination of paper at NHS organisations are part of the Health and Social Care Secretary’s tech vision that aims to modernise the health service and make it easier for NHS organisations to introduce innovative technologies.
The use of paper-based communications is "downright dangerous"
"Having to deal with outdated technology is hugely frustrating for staff and patients alike – and in many cases downright dangerous.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," Hancock said.
"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," he added.
The Royal College of Surgeons Commission also extended its support to Hancock's ambition, stating that it is ludicrous that NHS hospital trusts still own over 8,000 fax machines and that it is high time for NHS organisations to adopt modern communication.
"We know that digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence, genomics and imaging for healthcare, are going to play an increasingly important role in how we deliver patient care. It is therefore imperative that the NHS uses modern communication channels that are up to the job of transmitting vast amounts of personalised patient information quickly and securely. The RCS fully supports the health secretary’s ban on fax machines in the NHS," said Mr Richard Kerr, Chair of the RCSC.
Even though the objective is to eliminate the use of paper or fax machines as quickly as possible, the transition to email will take place in a phased manner. Firstly, NHS organisations will not be forced to use NHSMail but will be allowed to choose a secure email provider that meets the required security settings.
Digital services and IT systems will also be empowered to set clear standards to allow NHS organisations to securely communicate with each other across organisational boundaries and to ensure that all systems used for such communications are routinely upgraded.
At the same time, the government will only work with providers who will be able to offer services that meet the organisation's security requirements and systems that do not meet new standards will be phased out and replaced with new ones.
NHS to eliminate the use of paper & fax completely by 2020
It was in 2015 that NHS England had first proposed a roadmap to eliminate the use of paper and fax machines at NHS organisations to make services safer, more effective and efficient. Stating that it cost each NHS Trust between £500,000 and £1 million to store paper records every year, NHS England said that committed to making all patient and care records digital by 2020.
"Health and social care services in England must end the unnecessary reliance on paper in the treatment of patients. It’s key to making services safer, more effective and more efficient. Every day, care is held up and patients are kept waiting while an army of people transport and store huge quantities of paper round our healthcare system.
"This approach is past its sell by date. We need to consign to the dustbin of history the industry in referral letters, the outdated use of fax machines and the trolleys groaning with patients’ notes. As well as saving precious resources, technology can dramatically reduce errors. Urgent action is a moral imperative where paper is the currency of clinical practice, said Tim Kelsey, NHS England’s National Director for Patients and Information and chair of the National Information Board.