Hancock aims to replace letters with emails across NHS

Health secretary reveals email will be opened up to allow use of ‘any secure email provider’

Credit: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/PA Images

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock wants the NHS to eradicate the use of pen and paper communications with patients.

Speaking at the NHS England conference taking place this week, Hancock told attendees that he wanted healthcare staff to be able email patients directly about appointments. To help promote the use of email, the health secretary announced that NHS organisations will soon be permitted to use any email system considered to be secure – not just the NHSmail communications service.

“Having to deal with outdated technology is hugely frustrating for staff and patients alike – and in many cases downright dangerous. A letter lost in the post could be the difference between life and death,” Hancock said. “Our mission now is to make it as easy as possible for GPs to communicate safely and securely with their patients and colleagues.”

He added: “There is no reason why a doctor cannot email a patient confidentially, for example with their test results or prescription, rather than make them wait days for a letter or ask them to come into the surgery. The rest of the world runs on email – and the NHS should too.”

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NHSmail was created by NHS Digital, based on Microsoft Exchange technology. Since 2016, it has been supported by delivery partner Accenture. 

The move to diversify the email landscape comes alongside the development of a set of open standards and interoperability requirements for NHS tech suppliers that will be implemented in the coming months.

The drive to eradicate postal communications comes hot on the heels of Hancock banning fax machines. As of last month, NHS organisations are no longer allowed to buy new machines. The health secretary’s goal is to entirely eliminate them from the health service by 31 March 2020.

Research published last year by the Royal College of Surgeons’ Commission on the Future of Surgery found that NHS trusts still owned a cumulative total of 8,000 fax machines. The commission’s chair Richard Kerr described this as “ludicrous”.

“We know that digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence, genomics and imaging for healthcare, are going to play an increasingly important role in how we deliver patient care,” he added. “It is therefore imperative that the NHS uses modern communication channels that are up to the job of transmitting vast amounts of personalised patient information quickly and securely. The RCS fully supports the health secretary’s ban on fax machines in the NHS.”

Sam Trendall

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