A new text messaging service allowing patients to make appointments for treatment at a time convenient for them is to be launched at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, London in the new year.

The hospital’s Genito-Urinary Medicine (GUM) and Sexual Health clinics will use the system to provide a 24-hour appointment service connected to the hospital’s existing database. The system is intended to reduce the amount of time patients spend waiting on the phone to arrange an appointment, and also help map and plan demand for sexual health services. 

Dr Daniel Ivens, lead clinician in genitourinary medicine, said: “We will be piloting this project in January 2007 in conjunction with the DH. The idea is not to guarantee an appointment using the text service, but to try and manage demand for appointments, which usually ties up our phone lines.”

The service will give patients a specific number to text when they want an appointment. When the patient replies, the system will search the appointment database and find three available appointments over a 48-hour period. It will then sends these to the patient by SMS.

The patient can then choose which appointment they want and are provided with a booking reference. Their file is identified by their mobile number, which acts as a temporary patient number.

The system operates in two modes: a manually operated 24-hour booking service, and an automated out-of-hours service. The manual service is operated by call centre and or text message, and can provide a comprehensive booking service for all future appointments. Appointments may be booked by phone call, text message or by a browser interface. Booked appointments and available slots are uploaded from the system to the clinic software each half day.

The out-of-hours service operates makes available slots over the following 48-hours period viewable by SMS booking or via a web browser. Booked appointments and available slots are uploaded from the system to the clinic software at the start and end of each working day.

The system was jointly developed by software developers Software Medical, Avanquest and Computer Communications Ltd.

A spokesperson from Avanquest told E-Health Insider: "Texting is getting more popular in the UK. Twenty-eight billion were sent in the UK last year and research suggests that 98 per cent of them were read. It makes sense to use these for hospital appointments and the trial in the sexual health department should demonstrate this.

Dennis Armstrong, chief executive officer of Computer Communications Limited, told EHI: “Using text messages to allow the patient to choose their appointment and re-confirm their appointments will help save time, making appointment booking more fast and efficient, and saving both the trust and patients money on phone bills.”