The NHS could save millions of pounds by using email and text messages to reduce missed appointments, according to a new report.
Official figures show 5.2 million missed hospital outpatient appointments in one year in England alone, at a cost to the NHS of £262m.
But widespread reluctance to move away from traditional paper-based systems is holding back progress in the NHS, leaving it in serious danger of missing e-government targets, say the authors of a report gauging patients' views of the service.
A recent nationwide study published by KPMG Consulting and interest group the New Health Network has suggested that new technologies, including computerised systems that allow patients access to their records and more choice over appointment times, could help avoid much of the financial waste of missed appointments and help reduce NHS waiting list times.
Margaret Mythen, chief executive of the New Health Network, explained that IT played a key role in proposals to overhaul the NHS, including offering the ability for patients to take more control over where they were treated.
"Let's not spend money in the same old way. This is an opportunity to do things differently," she said. But she warned that, although the technology existed, turning theory into practice would be slow.
"It's not necessarily the money but who's taking responsibility for it locally," she pointed out. "Until recently IT wasn't seen as important because of a lack of understanding.
"We want to set up an IT forum for our members, but finding people in the NHS who really understand the potential of IT has been really hard."
The report advocates offering patients more control of their NHS experience by introducing systems to make it easier for patients to opt for 'out of area' routine operations where local waiting lists are too long.
Almost 60 per cent of respondents in the study said they would be prepared to travel anywhere in the UK for an essential operation.
"Now that we know people are prepared to travel let's look at different ways of spending money to improve patient care - and that includes IT," said Mythen.
David Gardner, principal consultant in the public services division at KPMG Consulting, called for a more integrated approach to IT implementations across the NHS.
"While you can have local systems and pilots, what's important is interoperability," he said. "My feeling is that there's a strong commitment from the government and the Department of Health, but there needs to be more drive to capture the benefits of IT at the middle management level."
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