Securing NHS communications and protecting patients by using the right comms mix

Peter Lomax from Multitone Electronics, contributed to the latest MedTalk Podcast regarding the discussion around the use of pagers in the NHS. Here, he writes about the recent announcement from health secretary Matt Hancock which should see pagers phased out of the NHS by 2021.  

UK health secretary Matt Hancock’s call to fully digitise the NHS is a very positive step forward but finding the right approach to this needs careful consideration. Critical communications in the NHS literally saves lives, so any changes need to ensure the highest levels of care are maintained and assured.

Mr Hancock has cited pagers as “…archaic technology…”. However, paging systems as a concept have continued to evolve and develop, with the latest generations being far more sophisticated, offering powerful two-way, multimedia and voice messaging solutions.

Pagers continue to play a vital role by being highly robust, reliable, and cost-efficient – where as many other broadcast methods would struggle to offer the same levels of service. Interestingly pagers are also an essential and proven critical communications tool for other emergency services, such as the RNLI and practically all Fire Brigades in the UK and Éire, whose volunteer crews rely on this location-aware technology in areas with limited mobile phone coverage.

Dedicated networks

Multitone works with numerous NHS Trusts across the UK and in doing so we have learnt about many of the challenges faced when it comes to providing effective communications systems. Smartphones rely upon Wi-Fi or GSM coverage, but unfortunately some hospital sites (especially older buildings) struggle to get good coverage for operational communications, let alone critical comms.

By using their own dedicated private networks, modern paging systems offer exceptional coverage and service, unfettered by a patchy Wi-Fi signal or considerable traffic and congestion that can affect Wi-Fi and public GSM networks.

The best mix

Whilst pagers continue to be a perfect choice for many critical comms, the NHS would best be served (both on service levels and costs) by using an intelligent mixture of communications options to best serve patient and staff needs.

App-based solutions are perfect for running many services, both in hospitals and in wider community-based care. However, for security and confidentiality, all these communications need to be controlled and supported under a fully integrated messaging platform, able to pull together all of these individual systems.

A fully integrated communications solution such as Multitone i-Message ensures messages reach the right person by the best method – be that via a secure smart device app (such as Multitone Appear), voice or SMS using WiFi/GSM, a pager using a private network, IM, email or even a landline where appropriate. Where the WiFi or GSM network does give adequate coverage to support critical messaging, this kind of solution makes it easy to smoothly migrate to smart devices, without disrupting critical services.

At Multitone we have supported many NHS customers migrating from legacy, paging only systems, to highly flexible, resilient, secure messaging solutions, based on the Multitone i-Message platform. These NHS organisations benefit from being able to use the right combination of messaging and communication tools to offer a fully integrated solution for all of their employees, regardless of the time of day.

This integrated approach sees seamless media rich messaging to individuals and teams, regardless of the end devices being used, and this does include media rich on-site critical paging, via pagers for emergency responders including (but not limited to) crash teams.

Cost-efficient

With the pace of technology change it can be a challenge for the NHS to keep up with every new device. Along with pagers, the NHS has invested in many ‘legacy’ systems throughout the years and if these are still successfully used and relied upon it makes little sense to change them unless actually required. Upgrading the communications control system is far more cost-efficient than suddenly changing all the end-point devices for costly new smart devices.

The Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) approach also makes sense for some healthcare workers, but strict security needs to be maintained on private devices – something a modern integrated communications hub such as Multitone i-Message is perfectly placed to deliver. It also evolves with future communications platforms, rather than having to invest in new infrastructure each time.

Embracing future communications

By using a secure smart messaging system such as Multitone i-Message, the NHS can embrace the communications vision suggested by Mr Hancock as it becomes appropriate, but without the risk of compromising patient care.

Whilst it is premature to write-off using highly reliable and trustworthy pagers for critical comms for the time being, flexibility in digital communications is undoubtedly a progressive and intelligent use of NHS communications budgets. Using the most appropriate blend of both onsite and wide area solutions, such secure smartphone apps and pagers could be just what the doctor ordered for many healthcare applications.



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