Communication breakdown? Industry reacts to Hancock pager pledge

The phasing out of pagers from the NHS has been cautiously welcomed by digital health companies, after health secretary Matt Hancock ordered the use pager communications to be stopped by 2021.

According to BBC News, Hancock has said the pagers are outdated much like fax machines and the technology should be replaced, saying emails and mobile phones are “more secure, cheaper and quicker way to communicate.”

Joost Bruggeman, former doctor and surgeon and co-founder of healthcare communication platform Siilo, welcomed the announcement but questioned whether there was a strategy behind the move.

He said: “My experience is typical of so many medical professionals that I work with and is most likely the reason why WhatsApp has become so extensively used in the NHS alongside pagers – despite it being insecure, intrusive and in turn unfit for purpose: it is efficient and clinically useful. It enables at least some information to be shared across geographical or organisational boundaries and networks similar to fax, pagers and the postal system, but in a way that many new digital systems including electronic patient records systems and even NHSmail, do not.

“WhatsApp is widely used and liked in the NHS – but it has its issues. For the sake of the empowerment of their clinical workforce and their own GDPR compliance we urge clinicians, Trusts and NHS IT leads to actively research and test for the most appropriate alternative for WhatsApp by seeking a tailor-made messaging service for their profession that respects patient privacy and does not encroach on personal lives.

“So while Matt Hancock’s announcement is right in so many ways, there is no funding or strategy, and there’s a real fear this pager ban is just the latest in a series headline grabbing announcements made in quick succession that bans technologies used in the NHS for decades. The NHS – and its users – deserve more.”

While welcoming the move itself, Dr Barney Gilbert, co-founder and co-CEO of Forward Health warned against a blanket ban, suggesting there is a role that pager technology can play within the NHS.

Dr Barney Gilbert, co-founder and co-CEO of Forward Health: “For us, this is an important step forward in the digitisation of the NHS. Forward was created by frustrated clinicians who wanted to find a better way to communicate in the hospital. The adoption we are achieving at the grassroots level across the NHS, now in over 140 hospitals, is testament to the fact that our clinicians have long been seeking out an alternative to the 1960s communications infrastructure the NHS still relies on. Offering clinicians faster alternatives to the pager, and safer options than WhatsApp, must be welcomed.

“But we should be mindful of any blanket ban as there are emergency clinical situations where the pager could still play a role, certainly before we can prove out critical alert services under 5G coverage. This is something that, as always, should continue to be evaluated on the front lines of our health service, by the healthcare professionals themselves.”

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