The digital arm of England's health service, NHSX, is tendering for a replacement to ageing pager technologies in an effort to modernise hospital communications systems.
The £3m framework deal on offer is a step in fulfilling a dictum made by UK health secretary Matt Hancock in February 2019 that would require all NHS trusts to stop using pagers by the end of 2021.
The NHS still uses around 130,000 pagers at an annual cost of £6.6m, according to the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC). More than one in 10 of the world's pagers are used by the NHS.
For readers under the age of, say, 30, a pager is a pocket or belt-clipped device which receives local radio signals and bleeps in response to a call message. The devices pre-date cell phone technology and their origins stretch back to the 1950s. In the early days, the recipient did not even know what the message was about – it was just an invitation to call an operator. Now they display some text and suggest a number to call, although the user can't reply.
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To serve medical professionals effectively, Hancock said the NHS had "to get the basics right, like having computers that work and getting rid of archaic technology like pagers and fax machines".
"Email and mobile phones are a more secure, quicker and cheaper way to communicate which allow doctors and nurses to spend more time caring for patients rather than having to work round outdated kit," he said in 2019. A pilot project at West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (WSFT) in 2017 saved junior doctors 48 minutes per shift and nurses 21 minutes on average, according to DHSC.
The new tender calls for "systems and services" from "suppliers who can deliver against this requirement, whilst promoting innovation and delivering against a digital maturity model".
Mandatory functionality includes secure messaging, image sharing, staff directory (links to the global NHS.net address book), and calls. While meeting a long compliance list, including patient safety regulations, suppliers are also requested to look at options in connecting the communication system to patient lists, task management systems, video calls, and ERP systems.
The Framework Agreement covers "NHS England and Improvement, Clinical Commissioning Groups, Primary Care Networks, NHS Trusts, NHS Special Health Authorities and all other NHS organisations".
After the CMA decided to launch a probe into an anticipated 2017 deal in which Capita would buy Voda’s one-way wide-area-paging business, Voda scrapped the deal with the outsourcer and discontinued its pager service in March 2018. Capita's PageOne is the last remaining national pager network left in the UK, leading to increased costs, the government said.
Pagers are among a list of older technologies still in use, mainly for the reason that they are well liked and serve a very specific function. One doctor told the BBC that the pager system works well in emergencies as it takes less than a minute to send a message to members of a whole team, and, because the network uses its own transmitters and frequencies, there is reliable coverage within buildings. ®