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.