Why is it that we have managed to develop advanced machine learning algorithms that can predict a person’s risk of developing a disease, mitigating a lifetime of ill health and repeat hospital visits by managing the condition early on. But when it comes to the simple task of sending a clinical document between healthcare providers, we are still heavily reliant on a technology developed in 1843, the fax machine. 

Recent research stemming from the UK has revealed there are more than 8000 fax machines still in use in the English National Health Service (NHS). The New Zealand healthcare system is in a similar situation with many of the District Health Boards (DHBs) still reliant on the fax machine.

Richard Corbridge, chief digital and information officer at The Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust is determined to eliminate the use of fax machines in the UK by 2019. He believes they are not a secure way to send sensitive medical information, and they have an unacceptably high chance of this information ending up in the wrong hands or being lost in the process.

The use of paper-based clinical documents such as referrals is an inefficient and potentially hazardous means of transferring clinical information. A lost referral has the potential to cause life-threatening harm to a patient, or a delay in them receiving timely medical care. This can put their long-term health at risk, often without the patient or family knowing until it’s too late.

Not only could a patient experience a delay in receiving the appropriate care they need, the security and privacy associated with transferring a medical document by fax is unsatisfactory. Firstly, it could be sent to the wrong number, it may sit in the printing tray until the correct recipient picks it up, in which time it could have been viewed by others who it was not intended for. It is very difficult to track a piece of paper, in terms of the time it was received, viewed, who has viewed it and where it is at any point in time. 

In his recent speech, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock said the NHS has “the world’s biggest opportunity for saving lives through modern technology, and the world’s most frustrating place to work for its IT”. It seems contradictory that we have developed artificial neural networks that act as virtual assistants, yet many healthcare providers around the world are still using broken systems for the most basic tasks.

Before we can ‘revolutionise’ the healthcare industry with advanced artificial intelligence and robot-assisted surgery, it is imperative we achieve the basics first. With so many systems that still don’t talk to each other, making patient information sharing amongst clinicians very difficult. With the rising cost of healthcare causing pressure on the system, efficiency is key to delivering care. Improving the access to information so that the right clinician has the right data in front of them at the point of care is the step that’s going to save the most lives. 

Read how the Auckland region in New Zealand have streamlined their referrals process by using an electronic system. The three Auckland DHBs have improved clinical referral legibility, completeness, and accuracy, and there has been a reduction in errors that previously occurred, due in part to missing information or lost referrals.