End is Nigh for the NHS Fax Machine

Peter Russell

December 10, 2018

They were the ubiquitous communication tool of the 1990s, but the heyday of the fax machine was cut short by emails and an increasingly digital world.

Although outdated, the office fax has never entirely gone away, and the warbling dial tone of fax machines chatting to each other remains a familiar sound throughout today's NHS.

In July 2018, the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) said it was "ludicrous" that NHS hospital trusts owned 8209 fax machines. Freedom of Information requests by the RCS showed that Newcastle upon Tyne NHS Foundation Trust relied on an "astonishing" 603 of them.

A report by DeepMind Health in 2017 asserted that the digital revolution had "largely bypassed the NHS", which it named as the world's largest purchaser of fax machines.

Fax Machine Ban

Now, Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, has banned the NHS from buying more fax machines and ordered they are completely phased-out by April 2020.

The ban on purchases will come into effect from January 2019, and NHS organisations will be monitored on a quarterly basis until they declare themselves 'fax free'.

Mr Hancock, who is well known as an enthusiast for embracing new technology, said NHS trusts would be required to invest in new technology to replace outdated systems. He tweeted: "We need the best tech for our NHS – not outdated tech like fax machines."

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that from April, NHS organisations would be required to use modern communication methods, such as secure email, to improve patient safety and cyber security. It follows the Department's publication in October of a policy paper setting out how future digital services and IT systems would need to meet a clear set of open standards to ensure they can talk to each other and be replaced when better technologies become available.

Any system that did not meet these standards would be phased out, and the government could cancel contracts with providers who did not comply, the DHSC warned.

'Axe the Fax'

Richard Kerr, chair of the RCS's Commission on the Future of Surgery, said: "Advances in artificial intelligence, genomics and imaging for healthcare promise exciting benefits for patients. As these digital technologies begin to play a bigger part in how we deliver healthcare it is crucial that we invest in better ways of communicating the vast amount of patient information that is going to be generated.

"Most other organisations scrapped fax machines in the early 2000s and it is high time the NHS caught up. The RCS supports the ban on fax machines that will come into place in March 2020.

"Since we published our data on NHS fax machines, we’ve seen a number of trusts pledge to 'axe the fax'. They have proved that, with the right will and support, it is possible to modernise NHS communications."
 

'We Don't Underestimate the Enormity of the Challenge'

In September, The Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust (LTHT), which operated 340 fax machines, announced plans to remove 95% of them by January 1st 2019. It said a major clinical concern was whether a fax had been sent to the correct machine, been read by the right person, and whether appropriate action had been taken.

Richard Corbridge, chief digital and information officer at LTHT, said: "Turning off the fax is a step in the delivery of integrated care and a leap forward in putting healthcare information in the right hands every time it is needed.

"We don't underestimate the enormity of the challenge to remove all our machines in such a short time frame, but we simply cannot afford to continue living in the Dark Ages.

"The 'axe the fax' campaign aims to empower staff rather than disarm them and so far the feedback has been positive – staff are recognising that on the one hand we have hugely innovative technology being implemented in the Trust and on the other we have technology that hasn't existed for decades in other industries."
 

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