THE BLOG

Whatsapp Doc? NHS Failure To Update Cold War Era Tech Forcing Medics To Use Unsafe Apps To Help Save Lives

19/05/2017 13:31 BST | Updated 19/05/2017 13:31 BST

There can't be anyone left in the UK who thinks the tech the NHS relies on is up-to-date and secure after scores of hospitals and GP practices were forced to close their doors last week by a large-scale ransomware cyber attack.

In fact, the problem goes far deeper than an alleged missing 'patch' for a computer operating system. Throughout the country, NHS medical staff are relying on communications technology that is so outdated it is now being killed off by telecoms companies.

Pagers, which were so popular in the 1980s and 90s, have long been overshadowed by mobile phones and Vodafone has just announced it is ending its pager service.

That leaves just one major pager provider - PageOne - and one major customer of paging technology. Of course, that customer is the NHS which, along with smaller but significant organisations including the RNLI and EDF Energy, has stuck with this technology, which dates back to 1949.

The reasons for sticking with pagers have included low costs, and a marginally more reliable service. But is this really the best communications solution for medical staff in the 21st century?

Doctors clearly don't think so as they have been increasingly voting with their thumbs and ditching pagers for modern messaging apps such as WhatsApp, despite its use being strictly against NHS rules.

Health chiefs imposed the ban because, although devices such as mobile phones and tablets allow the rapid exchange of information that can help treat patients, they also pose a serious risk to patient confidentiality.

The problem is not so much with the software - encryption technology makes it easy to exchange information securely - but with the hardware.

Specifically, the problem is with the humans who use the hardware.

Humans, the weakest link

Mobile phones get lost, tablets get stolen, passwords are written on sticky notes stuck on laptop keyboards, information gets sent to wrong numbers. So"secure" information is suddenly not so safe.

The data watchdog, the Information Commissioner's Office, recently published figures showing that many devices with sensitive health information went missing over just four months in 2016.

There were 65 recorded occasions when unencrypted devices, such as laptops or USB drives, were lost or stolen.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Communication is a risky business

In 2015, a study was published that showed 65 per cent of doctors had texted patient data from their smartphones, 46 per cent had sent pictures (eg of wounds or x-rays) to a colleague and around a third had used an app such as WhatsApp to share confidential information.

The risks are huge - we live in litigious times and data breaches could cost the NHS dearly. But it's hardly realistic to expect medical staff to rely on pagers, faxes and other Cold War-era technology to communicate, particularly when they can save time, money and lives in the process.

Our health system has, quite simply, failed to adapt to modern communications methods.

NHS England's formal communication guidance, for example, states: "Whatever the other merits of WhatsApp, it should never be used for the sending of information in the professional healthcare environment."

And so our health professionals are put in an impossible situation: ignore the technology in their pockets, the technology that we all take for granted every time we use our smartphones; or use the technology, in the knowledge that they will be held responsible for any data breaches.

This call is urgent

Health and care workers deserve - and urgently need - an efficient way to communicate, one which is appropriate to the pace at which the modern world operates. And, ideally, one which isn't being phased out like pagers.

Progress has been made in encouraging the adoption of new technologies - NHS Digital's information standards, the Clinical Entrepreneur training programme and the NHS Innovation Accelerator to name but three examples.

But they need more support, such as that offered by the DigitalHealth.London Accelerator Programme, which has helped many tech outfits, including my own one, medCrowd.

Last year's Croydon tram crash illustrated how effective modern communications are - Croydon University Hospital was able to summon extra medical professionals rapidly thanks to WhatsApp messages.

But can it be right that health professionals are risking their careers whenever they use their mobile phones to exchange information? Are we really going to sacrifice talented medical staff because the NHS failed to provide a communications framework that is fit for purpose in the 21st century?

Saving lives through great communication is just as valid and important as saving lives through great surgery. This is a message that needs to be shouted from the rooftops - and from the mobile phones - of everyone involved in healthcare.