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Opinion: Barney Gilbert, CEO of Forward App on the NHS banning fax machines

Medical histories spewing quietly unnoticed onto a desk in a busy ward, urgent information being sent to places that doctors can’t access, junior doctors leaving a patient’s bedside to pick up a piece of paper that has just been delivered then running back with essential information quite literally in hand. Welcome to 2018, where the NHS still runs on fax paper. 

However, as Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced this weekend, it won’t for much longer. From January 2019 NHS organisations will be banned from purchasing fax machines with a view to achieving a fully fax free NHS by 31 March 2020.

There are plenty of NHS fax horror stories – Richard Corbridge, Chief Information Officer at Leeds Teaching Hospital Trust, tells of a fax machine spilling never to be seen requests behind the cupboard on which it was sat for years on end. But the fax machine also presents a number of more mundane daily challenges to running a modern NHS. Information sent by fax cannot be easily shared with several colleagues at once, faxes have to be scanned onto electronic filing systems (a time-consuming exercise that makes information hard to search for), and sending faxes takes considerably longer than sharing information via digital formats.

Matt Hancock’s announcement will be welcomed, therefore, by anyone who cares about protecting the NHS’ staggering volume of personal data and those hard-working clinicians trying to get through their shift in an efficient way. It’s an important step forward in bringing the NHS’s 20th century communications network up to date.

‘Axeing the fax’ should not be where this conversation ends. To increase efficiency and make the experience of healthcare better for patients and NHS employees alike, our health service needs to let go of other archaic technology and embrace the array of new healthcare solutions that the tech sector in the UK is currently creating.

One of the most encouraging elements of this weekend’s news was that it came off the back of a well-argued campaign from those working on the frontline, such as the team at Leeds. It’s the innovations and updates being championed by the grassroots which are really making an impact on healthcare delivery. Gone are the days of mass software roll-outs, instead increasingly replaced by the forward thinking and proactivity of NHS staff on the front line.

But what does a new technological chapter for the NHS look like – where should the next step in this digital revolution take us?

From my experience as an NHS Junior Doctor, it’s clear that it’s high time to part with the pager, end the risky use of WhatsApp, hang up the landlines, and finally put paid to paper. Our clinicians are slowed down, held up, and demotivated by the 1960s communications infrastructure upon which we are forced to rely. And the fax machine is just one component of this. A true digital revolution means investing in innovation and understanding that the next 70 years of the NHS’ life will look, in many ways, radically different to the first 70.

While we gather kindling for the bonfire of the fax machines we need to think about what comes next and how we can use the possibilities of the UK’s youthful tech sector to the advantage of the country’s most beloved grandparent – the National Health Service.