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GPs to be charged for sending text messages through email in 'short-sighted' DH move

Exclusive Practices are set to be charged for sending text messages to patients’ phones reminding them of appointments and notifying them of test results under proposals that IT experts have warned will affect hard-to-reach patients.

NHS England and Department of Health have developed a business case for the development of the NHSmail 2 system to replace the current NHSmail, which they say will enhance the existing system, improve security and allow providers to customise their email addresses among other benefits.

However, the business case also highlights that central funding for the widely used email-to-SMS text messaging function will be halted in March 2015, despite many practices relying on this to contact patients effectively.

GP leaders said that the current system is essential for promoting inclusion and outreach with hard to reach populations - which the Government has promoted as a major aim - and that cutting it would be ‘short sighted’.

A letter from the Health and Social Care Information Centre informed NHS Trusts in June that practices will have to fund their own alternatives to the NHS SMS service if they wish to continue it beyond March 2015.

The same letter explained that NHS England will be leading the investigation on the service’s future in primary care and would notify GPs in the immediate future.

The letter states: ‘NHS England will lead on behalf of CSUs and CCGs to investigate options for future SMS arrangements for those primary care organisations. CSUs, CCGs and GPs should take no action at this point.’

‘NHS England will provide a further update direct to primary care organisations on this matter in due course.’

It also says: ’Organisations may also wish to consider their continued use of email-to-SMS in the context of the widespread use of Smartphone Apps and email by the general population - both of which are cheaper means of communication.’

The newsletter for YORLMC – representatives for North Yorkshire, Bradford and Airedale LMCs - states: ‘The GPC is aware of the proposals regarding NHS Mail and SMS messaging and has informed NHS England that funding for SMS messages must continue for practices. A further update will be provided in light of current discussions involving the GPC, NHS Mail Stakeholder Engagement Group and NHS England. ‘

Dr Grant Ingrams, vice chair of Coventry LMC and former chair of the GPC IT subcommittee told Pulse that cutting the scheme would be a burden for practices.

Dr Ingrams said: ‘In the next version, they’ve decided not to fund SMS, which to me is bizarre. Because we’re talking about trying to be inclusive, breaking down barriers and to meet hard to reach populations. This is a tool that helps us, and so they’re going to stop it.’

‘I use it to send out messages to patients, which tend to be the younger patients, who are more difficult to find otherwise. And we’ve got one particular patient who’s deaf and it’s really the only way we can communicate with them.’

Dr Ingrams added: ‘It makes life a lot easier, and quicker – because otherwise it would be filling in a letter and sticking it in the post. So I think it’s very short sighted.’

He said the likely alternative option for practices would be to purchase third party software, or send messages from a practice phone.

It comes as health secretary Jeremy Hunt has been promoting his ambition for the NHS to be paperless by 2018, including plans to harness smartphone technology and teleconsulting, in a bid to save the NHS £4.4bn.

Another scheme is looking at collecting patient responses to the Friends and Family test via text.

NHS England declined to comment on their involvement and referred to the Department of Health who had not responded at time of publication.

Readers' comments (16)

  • My understanding this is incorrect. Trusts have been notified to sort out their own local service but nothing has been decided about primary care.

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  • not paid for now...will stop using. end of story. more DNA's and less "access" all round. At least the DNA will give us 10 minutes to have a tea break (or catch up on something else).

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  • ONE PAYS FOR SERVICES WHICH MAKES SOME PROFITS. text message as reminder is already costing gp's in pocket with staff time, paying for these is radiculose to say the least...

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  • Hunt has a fantastic game he plays every day, it is called 'who can we upset today!
    The sit around a tables and look at all the idiotic ideas imaginable, then pick the worst and promote it as a good idea!

    First they say patients must have choice ... patients like text reminders, patients must have GP access but the government fails to match demand with supply.
    meet. Patients choice re GP, that is another good one, they are still not telling us how GP's are supposed to work 24/7, no break, no family time etc. just as long as they meet patients demands.
    They promised the patients the earth but forgot that you cannot put a pint in a half pint pot!
    There is talk of training GP\s to better manage mental health problems ... so does the queue for this services include every MP is Westminster?

    Jeremy Hunt needs to realise that unfortunately GP's are just normal human beings trying to do a high valued job chained to the walls by idiots!
    Lunatics may be able to run the asylum but the government certainly cannot run the NHS!

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  • Bye and thanks for all the fish

    According to the Full Business Case for NHSmail Transition the contract with the current provider (Vodafone) was due to end in June and a more cost effective provider was being sought.

    There is no specific detail about individual GPs being charged and indeed it is difficult to see how this could be enforced as each practice has multiple NHS email accounts

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  • They are about to do the same with the fax service Hadrian, & it's a simple turn the taps off situation, no enforcement needed. The cost to government is huge but surely they can get something cheaper than the 2p a sms text message Vodafone were charging.

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