The true cost of missed appointments: How SMS can help save the NHS

It’s a common subject of debate among politicians and publicans alike, but it’s important to remember just how important the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is to the population. The largest healthcare system of its kind in the world, it employs 1.4 million people and serves more than 660,000 people every day.

The NHS was born from the idea that good healthcare should be available to everyone, regardless of wealth. While this is being achieved at present, there are numerous challenges faced by healthcare bosses as they look to continue providing the best possible care for patients. One of the most prominent examples here comes in the form of DNAs – or ‘Did Not Attends’. A sometimes-overlooked solution to this is the humble text message.

Worrying figures

Running a healthcare system successfully takes both immaculate organisation and a lot of money. In the 2013/14 financial year, the NHS’s net expenditure was more than £109 billion – a long way from the £64 billion that was spent just ten years ago. Despite an influx of time and money-saving technology, costs in the sector are growing rapidly; this is something that must be addressed, and solving the problem of missed appointments will be key.

According to official NHS figures, Brits miss close to 19 million appointments every year – roughly 12 million at GP practices and a further 6.9 million at hospitals. While one absence may not seem like a big deal to the busy individual, the consequences are serious, which makes it all the more surprising that text reminders aren’t more widely utilised.

The knock-on effects

Medical professionals have busy schedules. While it’s impossible to stop some appointments from overrunning, they are booked to certain times for a reason. The second someone doesn’t turn up when they’re supposed to, the challenge of keeping everything running smoothly becomes even more significant.

Firstly, surgery and hospital staff are required to spend time preparing for patients to arrive. This usually involves collecting the appropriate records and any equipment/materials that may be needed to help. When people miss their appointments, this valuable time goes to waste. Not only does it cause stress and frustration for those involved, it impacts other patients’ appointments too.

It’s hard to quantify the issue on inconvenience alone, but the financial ramifications are simply too big to ignore. Obviously appointments will differ from one to another, but some DNAs can cost the NHS as much as £110. When everything is put together, the problem’s price tag is a staggering £162 million a year.

Money wasted

Not only is this a huge sum, it is money that could be spent on vastly improving other areas of the country’s healthcare system. At present, the NHS is funded by taxpayers, meaning there’s huge scrutiny on spending money carefully. There are a number of potential solutions to the problem of DNAs, many of which are being trialled now. The options will be covered in more detail later on, but for now, let’s take a closer look at where else £162 million could be spent.

For a start, the money would be enough to secure a huge amount of new equipment. At an individual cost of £9.50, for instance, it’d be possible to buy more than 17 million sets of crutches. Alternately, the money could instead pay for six million X-ray scans – more than a quarter of the total carried out in an average year. Of course, these are extreme examples, and the extra funding would certainly be spread out should the issue ever be fully solved, but they give an idea of the sheer scale of the problem.

In more relatable terms, the money could easily be spent on expanding the NHS’s capacity. Based on budgeting figures from NHS West Sussex, which says it spends £1,500 per person each year, £162 million could be used to cover the cost of caring for an extra 108,000 people annually – or the entire population of Basingstoke.

Again, the costs vary greatly from case to case, but it could even be feasible to build a hospital with the money saved. Work on a new critical treatment facility is underway in Hampshire, and project bosses expect the final cost to be in the region of £150 million. This leaves enough money to pay around 85 GPs and 260 nurses to staff the hospital for one year.

A problem worth overcoming

With the above in mind, it’s easy to see how big an issue DNAs are for the NHS. The inconvenience is one thing, but the financial impact is difficult to comprehend. It’s for this reason that work has already started on finding new ways to make sure people keep their appointments. Alongside seemingly minor yet innovative techniques like asking patients to write their own appointment details down and extending opening hours for added convenience, many facilities are relying on SMS as a way of reminding patients that their attendance is expected at the given time and date.

It’s important to remember that there’s more to DNAs than laziness and ignorance; mental illness and senility certainly play a part in the figures, for instance. Addressing issues in this area will require more than reminders. That said, proof exists that text reminders can make a significant difference, and this is something the government simply cannot afford to ignore.

We have some great healthcare case studies including how Newcross Healthcare use personalised bulk SMS for improving staff communication and how Knowsley Health and Wellbeing Centre used SMS for giving smokers the help and support that they needed to find the way of quitting that best suited them.

Now we want to help the NHS stop lost money through missed appointments.