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By all means axe the fax, but replace it with tech that is both secure and effective

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As Nursing Times reported earlier this week, the NHS is to be banned from buying fax machines.

The announcement came from health and social care secretary Matt Hancock as part of his strategy to modernise the health service.

The campaign, which will start next month, aims to phase out fax machines completely by the end of March 2020.

When Mr Hancock was appointed back in July he was largely unknown across health and social care, although his interest in digital technology was much discussed and was clearly going to be a key area of focus once he took up the post.

”Perhaps this highlights the fact that parts of the health service have some way to go before they are truly modernised”

His ‘axe the fax’ campaign has had a positive reception from many health professionals, and seems a move that is long overdue.

Some 8,000 fax machines are reportedly still used in the NHS in England despite the technology falling out of common use in most other sectors in the 2000s. Perhaps this highlights the fact that parts of the health service have some way to go before they are truly modernised.

Mr Hancock’s announcement about fax machines arrives alongside his plans for digital services and IT systems across the NHS to meet a set of standards to ensure they can ‘talk to each other’ and be continuously upgraded. The plans suggest the health secretary is serious about bringing the NHS up to speed and in line with other sectors when it comes to technology .

It would be fair to say that Mr Hancock’s plans are ambitious. Scrapping what is regarded as outdated technology within a relatively short timeframe will be seen as a significant and positive step to modernising the technologies in use throughout the NHS.

While I join many in welcoming his announcement, Mr Hancock is far from the first politician to highlight the need to embrace new and digital technologies in healthcare.

We must not forget that previous attempts to drag the NHS into the 21st century have ended in failure. Many top-down attempts to upgrade technology have been announced with huge fanfare and predictions that they would transform healthcare delivery, but have fallen short of their goals, or even been cancelled.

“There remain other questions about how exactly things will play out in practice”

The sheer number of staff and organisations involved in making such wide-scale changes means the task will be challenging, and new systems will need to be in place before the deadline.

Once the fax machines are gone, there remain other questions about how exactly things will play out in practice. Not least of these is the experience of NHS staff who will use the systems that replace them, any unforeseen limitations, and of course how secure the new systems are.

The last point is particularly crucial. The global Wanna Cry cyber-attack, which affected many organisations in the NHS last year, caused widespread disruption and highlighted vulnerabilities in systems used in the delivery of care.

Most important of all, any changes to systems and processes should adapt to the needs of staff; simply bringing in new technologies with the aim of ‘modernising’ is of little use if they do not improve efficiency and make the jobs of health professionals that little bit easier, freeing up more time to treat patients.

If a system looks impressive but only adds to the time taken to complete daily tasks and processes, it isn’t really much use.

It is vital that the people who will actually use these technologies on the front line are consulted and listened to throughout all stages of this ‘digital revolution’ or we may well end up with yet another expensive digital white elephant.

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