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The NHS is on course to phase out faxes, pagers and paper in the coming years.
What will fill the gap?

The Health Secretary announced this weekend that he wants the NHS to phase out pagers by 2021. This news followed recent announcements on the end of the fax machine’s role on NHS wards, as well as a push for email to replace paper based communication.

The digital revolution in healthcare is picking up pace with each passing month. But as these outdated communications tools are consigned to history – what will take their place?

At Forward, we’re naturally excited that the NHS’ reliance on pagers is set to fall in the coming years. In an environment where quick, safe and simple communication channels can literally save lives, pagers are not fit for purpose.

But we are also passionate believers in ensuring that any such changes are brought in through collaboration with frontline staff, in a way which protects data, improves outcomes, and reduces pressure on clinical teams.

Here are the five areas that Team Forward believe we should be focusing on as we usher in this next phase of digital adoption.

Frontline staff must lead the way

The people who shape the future of our health service are those already working on the front lines. These are the people who understand the nuances of the day to day reality of life in the NHS and know exactly what will help them do their jobs in a more effective way. The opinions, efforts and preferences of all clinicians – doctors, nurses, physios, pharmacists, midwives – must be central to any changes rolled out in their Trusts. Close collaboration with teams on the ground, coupled with the support and endorsement of management and the Department of Health, is what’s needed if we are to roll out the right digital systems in the right way.

Data security to take priority

Data security in healthcare is vital. As we move towards wider digital adoption, we cannot risk any other approach than that which sees cyber security and data ethics take priority. From the use of unfit for purpose platforms such as WhatsApp (BMJ data in 2018 showed that over 1,200 NHS staff have already been disciplined for using non-compliant messaging tools whilst at work), to patient identifiable notes left lying around or lost, there are many areas which better digital systems stand to make more secure. But it’s therefore incumbent upon providers and innovators to take their role in data security extremely seriously. Systems must be water-tight, software cutting edge, and the scope for human error minimised.

Some traditional tools could still have a place

Whilst we must move towards the adoption of digital alternatives, current WiFi and data coverage on wards (which is something digital players in this space must also put efforts into helping solve) does mean there remains a place for more traditional tools in the short-term. As we explore new and better ways of communicating in the NHS, we must be realistic about the pace of change if we are to ensure patient safety at all times.

Collaboration is king

Whilst the thoughts of frontline staff must be taken into account, so too should the ability of innovations to translate and scale across ward, hospital and Trust boundaries. Creating NHS communication pathways that aren’t restricted to individual is essential if we are to build a truly connected health service. Rolling out solutions in siloes won’t solve the whole problem. We must see collaboration and the sharing of best practice if the true benefits of digital innovation are to be felt.

Ease of adoption must be prioritised

Clinicians regularly have to contend with new systems, software and processes. Change fatigue is very real, which is further aggravated by poor design. Digital solutions must therefore be designed with our clinicians as the end user and their core problems with communicating in mind. Technology with lean UX design that is easy to use, genuinely solves end-to-end communications challenges and transcends traditional barriers with will be needed to ensure innovations are seen as solutions rather than headaches.