NHSmail2: NHSmail has a future, and it looks quite Google-y

More than half a million NHS staff use NHSmail, the single, secure email system set up under the National Programme for IT in 2004 used in both England and Scotland. It allows health service staff to keep the same nhs.net email address for as long as they work for an organisation providing healthcare services (including companies and social enterprises) which makes a lot of sense given the great majority of people starting a job in the NHS have moved from another health service organisation. It is also used by many NHS trusts and boards which prefer to stick with organisational email addresses.

The current contract with Cable & Wireless Worldwide (now a subsidiary of Vodafone) comes to an end in spring 2014. However, NHSmail will continue (probably supplied in future by several firms) and is likely to have new features from this date – which will be familiar to users of Google’s services, particularly Gmail and Google Drive.

Currently, NHSmail is basically an online version of Microsoft Outlook, with email, contacts, calendar and task functions. The new version, NHSmail2, looks set to add instant messaging (IM), online document creation and storage and bigger mailboxes, either as standard or as add-ons which NHS employers can buy. The basic system will again be bought by central government on behalf of all NHS organisations, which can then use it for free.

One retrograde step looks likely. Something which is currently paid for centrally, outbound text messaging (20 years old today), is very likely to become paid for by individual NHS organisations, mainly because there is a cost per message sent. Given this, it’s a little surprising it was ever ‘free’ to individual health service organisations. SMS easily pays its way when used to remind patients about appointments, as it cuts the ‘do not attend’ rate. But one trust used it to remind staff to come into work – a rather less justifiable use.

Overall, NHSmail2 may well feel quite like using Gmail (which includes IM) and Google Drive, previously known as Google Docs. If so, it could make a real difference to collaboration across the NHS. When the Guardian introduced a corporate version of Google’s services, staff collaboration improved: shared documents that anyone could edit made joint working much easier, and people quickly realised that IM – including, crucially, the ‘status’ availability indicator – was far quicker than email and often the phone for a query. Some Guardian staff use IM almost to the exclusion of any other method of communication. It’s still better to talk to someone, but IM comes close, and if someone isn’t sitting within shouting distance it’s a great facility to have.

The part of government buying the service – currently NHS Connecting for Health, which set up the National Programme for IT, but from next April the NHS Information Centre – has ambitious hopes for NHSmail2. The project, led by hospital doctor Dr Simon Eccles, is still under development, but so far it looks pretty promising for health service staff across England – who are being asked to provide their input here.

NB. This is the first post on the new and improved version of this blog, now at samathieson.com. All links to the old URL, quintessential.org.uk, should redirect to the equivalent page here.