While fax machines have become a technological relic in most industries, they've endured in the health care industry—but the United Kingdom's National Health Service is taking measures to "axe the fax."
Why health care can't seem to shake the fax machine
Despite the development of new technologies, such as EHRs, many doctors today—in the United States and abroad—use fax machines daily to send patient referrals, consent forms, and patient records to external organizations.
One reason providers are hesitant to let go of the fax machine, at least in the United States, is the lack of interoperability between EHRs. In addition, a number of technological advancements have made it easier to send, receive, and digitally store faxes.
There's also an economic incentive for U.S. providers to not share patient information with external provider through a patient's EHR—doing so makes it easier for the patient to seek care elsewhere.
However, fax machines come with a host of problems. The machines often experience busy signals, are difficult to read, and are prone to errors that can result in records being lost, misplaced, or sent to the wrong location. Faxed documents also add administrative burdens on providers, who may need to print or transcribe medical records before sending them via fax, and who must input any patient data received via fax into their own EHR systems.
Royal College of Surgeons backs call to 'axe the fax'
But in the UK, public health officials are becoming more aggressive in their efforts to rid NHS of fax machines. Effective next month, health secretary Matt Hancock said NHS will be barred from purchasing new fax machines.
NHS will be required to use modern communication methods, such as secure email, by the March 31, 2020.
The Royal College of Surgeons in July estimated that over 8,000 fax machines were still in use by NHS, a figure that Richard Kerr, chair of the college's commission on the future of surgery, said was "absurd."
Kerr said that it's "crucial that we invest in better ways of communicating the vast amount of patient information that is going to be generated" with technological advances in health care. "Most other organizations scrapped fax machines in the early 2000s and it is high time the NHS caught up."
Kerr added that since the college published its data on fax machines, "we've seen a number of trusts pledge to 'axe the fax.' They have proved that with the right will and support, it is possible to modernize NHS communications" (Press Association/The Guardian, 12/9; Baker, "Vitals," Axios, 12/11).
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