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Feature Technology

Wanted: a WhatsApp alternative for clinicians

BMJ 2018; 360 doi: (Published 12 February 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;360:k622
  1. Kim Thomas, freelance journalist, UK
  1. kimthomas{at}

With increasing concerns about doctors’ use of the messaging service for work, Kim Thomas looks at other systems aiming to consign the pager to history

When the Westminster terrorist attack happened in March 2017, one of the major problems was trying to get fast and up-to-date communication, remembers Helgi Johannsson, consultant anaesthetist at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.1 “The coordinating anaesthetist was flooded with phone calls [offering] help and was actually not able to continue to do his normal job,” he explains.

After the attack, Johansson, who was already using the WhatsApp messenger to organise shifts with colleagues, set up a group for dealing with major incidents. In the two London incidents since then—the London Bridge terrorist attack and the Grenfell Tower fire—all communication has been through the group. It meant, says Johansson, that “everyone had an idea of what was going on, who was needed where, and where the patients were moving around the hospital.”

The use of WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has spread among hospital clinicians. One survey found that 98.9% of UK hospital clinicians now have smartphones, with about a third using WhatsApp or a similar messaging tool.2 A Twitter thread started by NHS doctor David Oliver in November 2017 drew 140 responses from health professionals explaining that they use the technology for soliciting second opinions, sharing radiology or echocardiography results, and asking colleagues for cover.

It’s hardly surprising that this widely used consumer technology has caught on among health professionals. The dominant form of communication in hospitals—the pager—is costly, inefficient,3 and, says Johansson, “extremely disruptive.” “Pagers interrupt you in mid flow and only allow communication between one person and another,” he says.

As Dominic King, clinical lead at Google owned technology provider DeepMind Health, says: “It’s remarkable that a technology that …

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