A GP practice in south London which is using text messaging to send out appointment reminders to its patients will soon start sending out SMSs in separate languages.

The Patient Care Messaging system, supplied by iPlato and running from the practice’s EMIS database, has been used to send out flu jab prompts to patients at risk as well as appointment reminders, and is now to be updated with software to send out SMSs in the patients’ own language.

Steve Webb, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for health, MP for Northavon, Bristol, and technology enthusiast visited Dr Masterton and partner’s surgery in Streatham to see the system in action.

Webb uses mobile technology and the internet in several ways in his political life, such as having a focus group that he contacts using SMS and e-mail to ask their opinions on various issues.

Webb was impressed by the scheme: "I have done a considerable amount of texting but not on the scale of this."

The new language update to iPlato’s software will query the practice’s database and offer the administrator the opportunity to send out texts written in different

Adrian James-Morse, IT co-ordinator at Dr Masterton & Partners’ surgery explained: "In this area we have a high ethnic diversity. Mobile phones are more common than a house phone."

James-Morse, who describes himself as rare in that he is directly employed in IT by a practice and is often contracted out by other practices in the area to look at their technology issues, explained: "We found everyone who needs a flu jab and we sent out a batch text message to them."

The content of the message was that they should either call the practice to arrange an appointment, or reply with the word ‘refuse’. "Inside two minutes we had about 40 people say ‘refuse’."

Every morning at 7am, the system goes through the appointments for the day and sends out reminders to patients who have registered their mobile phone. Around 2,538 patients out of 7,414 at the practice have their number on file, and James-Morse says this has resulted in a drop of 34.5% in DNAs (‘did not attend’).

Vanessa Hann, a patient at the surgery who has been using the service, said that the system could be especially effective for those with memory problems.

She told E-Health Insider: "I don’t want to waste a doctor’s time, nor do I want to waste an appointment that I’ve spent a great deal of effort and energy getting."

"You don’t get anything you don’t want through this system."

Dr Masterton, senior partner at the practice, said that while the service didn’t reach all the patients there were quite a few potential applications for it: "The other thing that we are trying to do is look at other ways of using it. We are looking at chronic disease management, and using a mobile phone text message as a way of promoting to them that they need a review."

If a patient with chronic illness responds three times negatively to a request for a review, said Dr Masterton, then the patient can be removed from the practice’s target.

In the same way, when people refuse flu jabs the practice is still able to claim points for contacting them.

Text messages are sent out over the Orange network, at a cost to the practice of 6p each. There is also a monthly charge for use of the iPlato system.

A spokesperson for Orange told E-Health Insider they were enthusiastic supporters of this kind of service. "This is a perfect example of person-to-person communication and where it can help tackle patient absenteeism. Text messaging is one aspect of it all."

Toby Gockel, business development manager at iPlato, said: "Looking at the ability for practices to target certain patient groups with up-to-the-second messages really speaks volumes for the platform."

He told E-Health Insider: "Text messaging is not part of the National Programme and we see it as a complementary system to that."