Text messages have helped North Wales health bosses save an estimated £1.4 million by preventing missed appointments.
More than 500,000 reminders have gone out to patients in the past two years, encouraging them to keep their appointment, re-book for another date, or cancel if they no longer need to see a medic.
The Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board (BCUHB) initiative has also helped to reduce waiting time for other patients by freeing up appointments.
The scheme operates at hospitals across North Wales, including Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor, Ysbyty Glan Clwyd at Bodelwyddan and Wrexham Maelor Hospital.
It includes both text messages and voice mail calls, plus prompts for health campaigns, such as encouraging those at risk to get their annual flu jabs.
It was brought in after a survey in 2013 showed that more than 70,000 patients failed to show up for their outpatients appointment.
Each one missed appointment cost the health board between £120-£150 in wasted staff time and facilities – and meant other patients had to wait longer to see a medic.
Rachel Whitehall, BCUHB interim general manager for scheduled care, said: “It’s important people attend their appointments. Patients always receive a letter with the date of their appointment – however, we do recognise that often the date can be for some time ahead and it’s easy to forget or lose the letter, plus individual circumstances may change.
“That’s why we brought in this process to remind people – usually around a week before their appointment – to come along.
“Occasionally people may need to re-arrange their appointment, or it may be that they feel they no longer need any treatment and so want to cancel.
“As the majority of our patients or their carers have access to a mobile phone, this is an excellent way of using available technology to the advantage of all of our patients.
“In addition, it makes it very simple for patients to make changes to suit their own time, and so free up appointments for others.”
In a 12-month snap shot of the service, from October 2014 to last September, there were 1,113,184 outpatient appointments made within the health board.
Thanks to the reminder service, more than 10,000 patients asked to rebook or cancel their appointment – with over two-thirds of these slots then filled by another patient.
The reminders go out by text seven days before the appointment. To cancel or to re-arrange their own or their child’s appointment, patients simply have to text back the word NO or REBOOK, once they have received the reminder.
They may also receive a voice message 24 hours before their appointment, and sometimes a call from a BCUHB worker.
For those patients whose mobile numbers are not on their file, BCUHB sends a recorded bi-lingual message to their landline about the appointment. The message has instructions about confirming attendance, cancelling or rebooking an appointment.
To safeguard patient confidentiality the bi-lingual messages don’t include sensitive details such as the appointment location or speciality, just in case the mobile phone number stored on the patient’s file is incorrect or out of date.
Patients can also opt out of the system, if they wish.
Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board is the largest health organisation in Wales, employing around 16,100 staff. It provides a full range of primary, community, mental health and acute hospital services for a population of around 676,000 people across North Wales as well as some parts of mid Wales, Cheshire and Shropshire.
It runs Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor, Ysbyty Glan Clwyd in Bodelwyddan and Wrexham Maelor Hospital as well as 18 other acute and community hospitals and a network of over 90 health centres, clinics, community health team bases and mental health units. The Health Board also coordinates the work of 115 GP practices and NHS services provided by North Wales dentists, opticians and pharmacies.
BCUHB’s new chief executive is Gary Doherty, currently Chief Executive of Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and previously Deputy Chief Executive of Wirral University Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.