SMS reminders help NHS tackle forgetful patients

Case study: 'Don't 4get ur doc app 2day... '

Case study: 'Don't 4get ur doc app 2day... '

An SMS service is helping the NHS save time and reduce the number of appointments missed by patients.

The Patient Care Messaging (PCM) software, which is made by healthcare application developer iPLATO, is being used by 24 NHS Primary Care Trusts to enable GP surgeries to send automatic and targeted appointment and health reminders to patients by text message.

Stuart Hall, IT manager of The Vale Medical Centre in Lewisham, which has been using the system since September 2006, told PCM has reduced the practice's missed appointment rate by a considerable margin - from between 15 and 18 per cent at the time of installation, to between four and five per cent at the end of December 2007.

Hall explained: "It is an NHS problem nationwide: patients that don't keep their appointments or just forget them. This system has certainly reduced our number of failed appointments."

He said the system was up and running in "minutes". "It's a piece of software that sits on one of our servers. It then interrogates the clinical server for the relevant information and stores it and then when the patients appointments are coming up it will automatically send out a reminder."

Patients who receive reminder texts have the chance to reply by SMS if they need to cancel their appointment which helps to free up appointments for others, said Hall. Patients can also opt out of receiving texts if they prefer.

As well as automatic appointment reminders for each day's appointments, PCM can be used for targeting specific patients. Hall explained: "We've used it also for our influenza campaign to target those patients who've not turned up for appointments or not bothered to get in touch with us that they are due a flu jab."

It can also be used to request health information, such as a patient's current smoking status. Using a text message for this is not only cheaper and quicker than sending a letter but patients are also more likely to respond, said Hall. "The response rate on postal questionnaires is abysmal," he added.

And it's not just patients' time that is being saved as the system also helps cut down the admin burden, said Hall. "The search can be done and sent within about 15 minutes, whereas if you're targeting about 200 patients for a particular campaign you've got to type up the original letter, mail merger it with all the 200 names, fold it up, stamp it, put it in the post box so you could spend up to an hour/hour and a half on that," he said.