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February 17, 2014

Can text messages improve the NHS and patient care?

Hospitals are using SMS to transform patient communication and tackle inefficiency.

By Kate Heslop

The number of cancelled NHS operations and appointments continues to rise according to the latest official figures, but a text messaging system has been deployed in a number of NHS hospitals to minimise the impact of cancellations on patients.

Several hospitals, including South London and Maudsley Hospital Trust, University College London Hospitals and Heatherwood and Wexham Park Hospitals in Slough, have started using text messages so patients can instantly re-book appointments. This ensures vital care goes ahead as quickly as possible at a time to suit patients as well as the hospital.

The text messaging system was designed and implemented by DrDoctor, a patient communications specialist, which uses open source software to solve NHS problems.

DrDoctor is a Tech City based startup, and hopes to persuade the NHS as a whole to modernise its administrative systems which rely on letter based appointments, or one-way text appointment alerts that don’t allow patients to respond.

A survey carried out by DrDoctor found that 52% of patients would like to receive notifications and options about scheduled care via text message. The survey also shows that 91% of patients would use a cancelled slot if they were given less than a week’s notice, which means a text messaging system could benefit a wide range of patients who could be seen sooner.

Tom Whicher from DrDoctor told CBR: "Our system automatically offers and refills appointment slots as they become free to reduce waiting times. We do this using SMS and online tools, ensuring patients always have up to date information about their care. This gives patients more control and awareness of their appointment scheduling and easy access to extra information. This means patients turn up to hospital better prepared with fewer unknowns, so they are less stressed. This process reduces the administrative load on hospitals, freeing staff up to focus on their core job of providing better patient care."

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Heatherwood and Wexham Park Hospitals in Slough has installed the DrDoctor system, which has introduced a mobile appointment system that confirms dates and times with patients at no extra staffing cost. Text messages can be sent to patients reminding them of operations to check-up appointments, with the option of requesting new dates.

If a reply to the message is received from a patient requesting another date, an automatic message goes out with a list of alternative dates pulled from the hospital computer database. Text messages requesting alternative dates appear in the patient administration system immediately to avoid duplication and extra staff work. As soon as the system recognises that an appointment has opened up, it is flagged up as a possible alternative for other patients.

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