How SMS could save healthcare trusts serious money

Laura Varley

Laura Varley, Guest Editor

Whether it’s for a haircut, tattoo, car service or medical consultation, it’s all too easy to forget to go to our appointments. However, not turning up can cost businesses a huge amount of money, and healthcare trusts are suffering in particular.

In the UK, missed appointments cost the National Health Service (NHS) £912 million (around $1.2 billion) a year –equivalent to £160 ($225) per appointment. No healthcare trust can afford to lose this sort of money, especially when there’s such an obvious solution to the problem: SMS reminders.

Why SMS?

You can’t walk down the street or hop on a bus without seeing at least one person immersed in whatever’s on their mobile phone’s screen. Around half the world’s population owns a smartphone, a figure which is set to increase to 80 per cent by 2020. Further, the average user checks their phone 85 times a day – these devices have become an incredibly important part of our lives. Most people have their mobile phone on them at all times, and since they’re checking them so often, they’re unlikely to miss an important text message.

The alternatives are nowhere near as efficient or effective; a postal reminder would not only be more expensive but it would take at least a day to arrive, while an email could easily get stuck in the junk folder. Phone calls are another option, but these are time consuming, depend on the person having their device on them, and not everyone is willing to answer calls from numbers they don’t recognise. Text messages are instant, cheap and take neither any time nor effort to read.

How can healthcare trusts benefit?

Most patients don’t miss their appointments on purpose – after all, why would they book them in the first place if they weren’t important? A simple reminder via text a couple of days before that also tells them to cancel their appointment if they can’t make it, preventing people from forgetting to turn up. Of course, this doesn’t prevent lazy people from not bothering to cancel their appointment, so how can SMS convince those patients to take action?

In the UK, two hospital trusts in London conducted a study into the effectiveness of text messages that informed patients of how much money is wasted as a result of missed appointments. The results of their research suggested that the NHS could save as much as £200 million a year by employing this texting technique. Guilt-tripping works.

Preventative measures

Appointment reminders aren’t the only way healthcare trusts all over the world could save money though. Preventing people from needing to see a doctor or return to hospital by sending them healthcare tips and medication reminders could not only improve patient welfare, but stop them from developing expensive health problems.

A recent study carried out in Cape Town by researchers at Oxford University looked in to how patients suffering with high blood pressure could be helped with the aid of text messages. Some 1,300 people took part and were split into three groups; one of the groups only received standard care, whilst the other two were sent regular SMS reminders regarding when to collect and take their medicine. After a year, the group that had received messages on a regular basis saw their blood pressure drop the most. Since high blood pressure can lead to serious and expensive health problems like heart disease, vascular dementia and strokes, it’s incredibly important to try and prevent them from occurring in the first place. It will save hospitals money and alleviate the strain on doctors, surgeons and nurses.

Tips and encouragement sent via text message could also help patients trying to quit smoking. For example, the messages could inform the patient how many days it’s been since they quit, the benefits they should start to experience, and what to do if they are struggling. Regular encouragement and support is surprisingly effective – past studies have indicated that they could double smokers’ chances of quitting.

Outbreaks of infectious viruses, such as Norovirus, can bring hospitals to a standstill; they have to quarantine the affected patients, shutting off in-demand wards and beds from others. This can cost them serious money, as it eats up resources that could be used elsewhere, for others in need.

Norovirus is highly infectious and, in the vast majority of cases, patients don’t need to go to hospital or their local doctor to be treated. However, most people aren’t aware of this, nor of what Norovirus actually is and therefore how to recognise the symptoms. Text messages to patients of local doctor’s surgeries could warn people about the winter vomiting bug and what to do if they start experiencing the tell-tale symptoms. This would stop people going into hospital and passing the infection around to others, who may already be seriously ill.

All healthcare trusts need to embrace technology further if they are to save money and provide the best care possible to their patients. The humble text message can help healthcare professionals do so much, from encouraging patients to kick a habit to reminding them about their 2pm appointment on Friday.

SMS is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to keep in contact with patients – it won’t be long until every hospital and surgery is making the most out of them. 

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