Finding the Right Mix of NHS Communications

I was delighted to read that the new UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has promised £487m to improve technology and care in hospitals, with more access to healthcare at home. 

It was also interesting to read that Mr Hancock is calling for the NHS to: “throw away their pagers” and use more communications apps. Whilst apps are very important, I believe pagers also have an equally vital and unique role to play in safeguarding patients and future healthcare services.

Overall, the proposal for ‘Tech Transformation’ should be welcomed wholeheartedly. Using smart devices to broaden the communications mix of the NHS is imperative, it uses a technology that is familiar to most people and offers a huge degree of flexibility.

Communications misconceptions

Saying pagers are ‘old’ technology ignores their considerable evolution. Whilst they have a long history, modern pagers are far more sophisticated – compact, digital, two-way devices that can receive full text messages and voice sent to a single receiver or large group, through one signal.  

Pagers have no alternatives in terms of reliability and suitability for critical communications. They alert staff quickly and reliably, using a highly secure private network that’s well-insulated against cyber-attacks. Pagers can even be integrated with modern Internet-enabled systems, such as Sigfox, and LoRa that operate over large areas (10-25km), whilst retaining all the benefits.

Pagers are designed to run for lengthy periods on a single charge (typically for four to six weeks in a hospital – some firefighters’ pagers can last a year!), which is particularly important during possible power outages in an emergency or attack. Rugged healthcare pagers cope with a necessarily rough life, including immersion in fluids, dirt and vigorous cleaning regimes.

The holy trinity

Mr Hancock also talks about the ‘… holy trinity of improving outcomes, helping clinicians and saving money…’. It’s safe to say modern paging already covers all three!

It is the technology of choice in emergency situations (such as a Crash call) where speed and reliability are vital in saving lives. Without relying on public mobile networks or Wi-Fi, pagers avoid communications traffic congestion. Medical staff know they can rely on this is straightforward and quick technology.

Paging is also inexpensive and highly cost-efficient for the NHS – typically £5-£6 per unit, per month to operate. Interestingly, a story last year suggested the NHS uses 130,000 pagers at a cost of £6.6m – which equates to £50 per unit, considerably cheaper than any smart device.

Smart and secure technology

Smart app technology is already being used extensively across the NHS, but not necessarily in an official capacity. Recent research by BMJ Innovations found widespread use of WhatsApp for communications between healthcare professionals.

Undoubtedly there is popular demand for convenient and powerful multi-media communications. However, it raises concerns over the security and confidentiality of patient information that is being shared over public apps. GDPR, data protection laws and patient confidentiality all need to be adhered to, whichever communications are being employed.

What the NHS really needs is a dedicated app that embraces the benefits but avoids the security pitfalls. A private app allows the NHS to control, monitor and log communications (voice, messages, images etc.) which is essential for legislative compliance – protecting patients and NHS Trusts.

BYOD?

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) could help the NHS stretch it’s communications budget by utilising medical staff’s personal smartphones. However, security leaves a big question mark over this.

A private app would need ‘sandboxing’ technology to protect against data leaks or theft – any mobile device could potentially end up in the wrong hands. App security is even more critical than the device type used.

Arguably, sensitive NHS information should never be stored on a personal device. These devices won’t be operated or disposed of in as secure a manner as NHS owned technology. The NHS could purchase smart devices for staff, but that is an additional expense beyond the unit price of a pager.

Mix and match

A highly flexible and fluid approach is required for the NHS’ complex communications. It needs a sensible mixture of harmonious technologies to address every need.

Secure private smart apps for daily communications would be an enormous asset to the NHS, its teams and patients. For more specialised critical communications, it’s hard to beat modern pagers.

This requirement for the ‘right tool for the job’ is perhaps the biggest challenge for future NHS communications and its ‘Tech Transformation’. Beyond the specific devices, a powerful integrated communications and messaging management system is needed to accommodate and regulate/manage everything in one place.

This approach gives the NHS options to choose the best individual technology for its specific needs (both new and legacy systems) – rather than taking a blanket approach to these highly complex needs.