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How SMS Messaging is Helping the NHS to Save Thousands

It has become a well-known fact that the number of missed appointments is at an all time high across the NHS, especially when it comes to GP’s and outpatient clinics. The cost of these no-shows has a huge impact on the vital services that the NHS provides, for both the organisation and its patients. In recent years various trusts have used SMS messaging to remind clients of their appointments – and have saved the NHS thousands of pounds already.

The true cost of a missed appointment

Given the huge range of specialities within the NHS and the number of different types of consultations, assessments and treatments that are conducted on a daily basis, it is hard to put a precise figure on the true cost of a missed appointment. Recent research conducted by a team at Warwick Business School (WBS) recently put the average figure at £160. With nearly 10% of appointments missed in 2014-15 alone – that’s a staggering 5.6 million – the annual cost is reported by the National Audit Office to be £225 million. In the challenging economic and demographic situation of today, reducing this is an issue of top priority.

In addition to the financial impact, it is also important to consider that every missed appointment is also a lost opportunity to somebody else to be seen, denying some the chance to receive vital treatment.

Positive early results

One NHS trust that tested the effect of SMS reminders fairly early on was the Doncaster and Bassetlaw Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Prior to the trial they conducted, their outpatient clinics had seen a non-attendance rate of around 1 in 10 patients. This was costing the trust in the region of £2.2 million a year in staffing costs alone.

With the introduction of an SMS messaging trial across three specialities, they saw a significant reduction of 4% in missed appointments within the first three months.

As well as reducing the number of no-shows and the associated costs, the trust also found that adopting an SMS reminder system shortened waiting lists and improved patients’ experiences.

Getting the most out of SMS messaging

With research indicating that the most common cause of missed appointments is simply a failure to remember them, it quickly became obvious that SMS reminders are an important weapon in the NHS’s arsenal – especially given the incredibly low costs associated. A large number of NHS trusts have now introduced SMS reminders as standard and seen encouraging results.

One thing that the research undertaken by WBS did identify, however, was that making small changes to the text messages that were sent could make them even more effective and increase their potential to both save money and improve patient welfare.

Ivo Vlaev, Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick, believes that the key to unlocking the real value of SMS messaging lies in behavioural psychology – understanding human behaviour and making changes to the way things are done to take this into account.

Room for improvement

The NHS now sends a many as 5 million text message reminders to patients every month. Despite this, figures for non-attendance still remain far too high. Trials conducted by Vlaev and his colleagues from Imperial College London, the Department of Health and the ‘Nudge Unit’ ( the UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Team), did reveal, however, just how the content of a text message can reduce non-attendance for hospital appointments.

Whilst a simple text message giving the details of the appointment – time, day and hour – had good results, adding information about the cost of missed appointments saw a further reduction in missed appointments of 25% in comparison. The implications of this are dramatic, with the potential to prevent a further 400,000 no-shows per year simply by amending the information contained within SMS messages.

One observation worth noting is that the NHS is currently estimated to hold mobile phone numbers for just 20% of patients – despite Ofcom reporting that 93% of the UK’s adult population personally own or use a mobile phone.

Implications for the private sector

When it comes to healthcare and related services in the private sector, there are typically provisions to charge patients for failing to attend an appointment without prior notice. Despite this, there are still lessons that can be learned from the NHS experience.

With the application of the same behavioural psychology that Professor Vlaev and his colleagues pointed at, customer relations could be significantly improved. With reputation being of such importance in the private sector, any action that contributes to an improved patient experience is likely to be well worth the investment – especially when this may be as simple as a few carefully chosen words.

At fastsms, we have a team of experts who are always ready to help you make the most of SMS messaging for your organisation. Whatever your sector, we are happy to connect you with a specialist in your particular field. 

To find out how your business could benefit from our low-cost bulk SMS messaging platform, call us now on 0800 954 5305 or click here to access a range of resource including guides for various sectors as well as case studies and other useful information.

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