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NHS staff increase use of consumer IM apps



Survey shows that 43% in England are using instant messaging – and highlights concerns about failure to integrate with patient records

Consumer instant messaging (IM) apps are being used by about 500,000 staff in England’s NHS, creating a tension between data governance and patient care, according to a new report on the issue.

Published by cross platform digital solutions provider CommonTime, it is based on a survey by research firm Viga of 823 health service employees, with a claim that it provides a confidence level of 95% and a 3.5% margin for error.

The survey showed that 43% of the respondents relied on IM apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, equating to the figure of 500,000 throughout NHS England. The figure was even higher for doctors and nurses at 59%.

Users said it had improved communication and care standards, that they were not satisfied with channels provided by the NHS, and that without it patient care would suffer.

Martin Wilson, clinical lead for IT at The Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust, said: “The ability to have ‘group chats’ is perhaps the most obvious benefit, and reflects the clinical reality that we work in teams, and often make decisions as teams. Phone and pager systems of working, (as well as) email, just don’t support that clinical workflow particularly if you need a rapid response from multiple team members.”

Patient communication

On engaging with patients, 18% of respondents either per­sonally use instant messaging apps to communi­cate with patients or were aware of colleagues who do. One healthcare professional explained their use of WhatsApp enabled patients who could not afford phone credit to reach them. 

But 75% of the users expressed concerns over confidentiality through using the apps, and some officials warned this could create problems around security and isolate information from NHS systems.

“Rowan Pritchard-Jones, chief clinical information officer at St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “For me, the ability to prioritise tasks with the detail of IM is helpful to clinical staff and therefore a driver for use above pagers, for example. Yet the drawback remains that such detail of care never makes it into the patient record.”

Titled Instant Messaging in the NHS, the report also points to the survey finding that 39% of staff were not aware of their organisation’s governance and data protection documentation, and one in five had not been offered or received data protection data.

The findings have fuelled calls for solutions from the commercial sector that can be integrated easily with NHS records.

Need for standards

Andy Hadley, head of the IT development, service delivery and transformation at NHS Dorset Clinical Commissioning Group, said: “We need standards based, cheap as chips, ubiquitous instant messaging for the NHS, and for this to integrate well with the clinical records. The NHS needs to step up to enable secure use of technology to empower staff, and this needs to extend to social care and others involved in providing multi-agency health and care.”

Pritchard-Jones added: “Increasing numbers of electronic patient record vendors are creating solutions to support secure messaging as well as recording these tasks in the patient record. It will be critical that trusts ensure their infrastructure can support mobile devices working in this sophisticated way.”

Image from Imperial College NHS Trust

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