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Matt Hancock on the Andrew Marr show

NHS should replace letters with emails, says Health Secretary

Image credit: Jeff Overs/BBC/Handout via REUTERS

The Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock will call the NHS to stop relying on physical letters to communicate with patients, and instead switch to email.

Hancock – who was previously the digital, culture, media and sport minister – has made integration of digital technology into the NHS the foundation of his health policy. In October 2018, Hancock released a document laying out a “tech revolution” for the service, including the widespread adoption of health-tracking apps and wearables, and requiring digital services and IT systems to meet a set of open standards to ensure that they can communicate across organisational boundaries.

Health experts have raised questions about how the major upgrade (which is estimated to cost £13bn) will be funded, particularly amid ongoing funding shortages in the NHS.

According to The Times, Hancock is to call for the NHS to ditch letters for emails as the default mode of communication by 2021. Faster and more reliable communication through email could mean the “difference between life and death”, he is expected to say.

In December 2018, Hancock ordered fax machines to be entirely phased out by 2020, after finding that thousands of fax machines are still in use in the NHS.

“Having to deal with outdated technology is hugely frustrating for staff and patients alike – and in many cases, downright dangerous,” he will tell an NHS England conference. “A letter lost in the post could be the difference between life and death.”

Hancock will say that email systems are secure enough to guarantee the protection of patient data, and could cut the time patients must wait for communication from their doctors down from days.

“Today’s guidance confirms there is no reason why a doctor cannot email a patient confidentially, for example, with their test results or a prescription, rather than make them wait days for a letter or ask them to come into the surgery,” Hancock will say. “The rest of the world runs on email, and the NHS should too.”

Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, told The Times that she welcomed changes to improve patients’ experience with the NHS, however: “The practicalities of how we do it need to be thought through carefully – current IT systems in the NHS are often clunky and frustrating.”

Hancock is expected to say that NHS staff can use any secure email provider – not just NHSMail – in a move to support “innovation”.

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