HOSPITAL patients are to be phoned up by robots under a new scheme which could halt a £1 million missed appointments drain on the NHS budget.
An incredible 86,000 patients fail to turn up for hospital appointments each year across the region, wasting the valuable time of doctors, nurses and other health workers who wait for them.
But under the new hi-tech system created by NHS Lothian, outpatients would receive automated robo-calls reminding them of their hospital appointments a few days in advance and could also be phoned by a human staff member.
The patients will be asked to confirm whether they plan to attend the appointment by pressing numbers on their phone and will be redirected if they wish to cancel or reschedule, allowing someone else to take the slot.
NHS Lothian’s medical director, Dr David Farquharson, said the plan could save a seven-figure sum a year.
“We want to make it easier for patients to attend their appointment and obtain the care and treatment they need,” he said. “But if they are unable to make the allotted time and date, we need them to work with us and cancel it in advance.
“This new system is designed to make that easier for patients and ensure that someone else can benefit from the appointment if they can’t use it.
“Missed appointments cost NHS Lothian £1m each year and we need patients to work with us to change that.”
The programme will initially be run as a pilot for three months across seven outpatient departments – cardiology, medical paediatrics, plastic surgery, urology, musculo-skeletal physiotherapy, ophthalmology and chronic pain.
One system will result in only automated calls being made to patients, while another will see a mix of staff and machines give the reminders.
Their effectiveness will then be assessed by hospital bosses, with the most successful combination rolled out permanently if they prove successful.
Similar systems introduced at other health boards in Scotland, and at NHS Trusts in England, have cut the number of missed appointments.
Margaret Watt, chair of the Scotland Patients Association, cautiously welcomed the new scheme, but said it must be closely monitored during the three-month period and warned it would not be the only solution to the problem of missed appointments.
She said: “Missed appointments are costing big money – I can believe that it’s costing £1m a year and we have to do something.
“That money could be spent bringing back nurses and doctors who would put something into the health service.
“But it isn’t just about phoning people up and I don’t think it’s the ultimate answer.
“Sometimes people are given appointments that are months away. I’m sure more people would attend if that wasn’t the case.”