Spam, NHSmail, and why all squirrels are not the same.

21st April 2017

By Cleveland Henry



Here’s a useless fact.  When I’m not doing fun healthcare tecchie stuff, I like doing other fun stuff.  Like enjoying being a cycling MAMIL (Middle Aged Man in Lycra).


My last Yorkshire countryside ride was marred by rubbish which looked like it had been hurled out of a bin by a caffeinated toddler.  I quickly realised, though, that no toddler was involved – this was the work of squirrels.  Specifically, grey squirrels – Squirrelus Pain-in-the-buttus.  (I may have made that up).


Grey squirrels may look cute, but there are way too many of them.  They are, officially, vermin. They’ve overwhelmed their less robust cousins, the red squirrels.  Conservationists now are searching for ways in which the red squirrel can be encouraged and the grey blocked.  Trying to nurture the fragile red, giving it a place to live, whilst making things as uncomfortable as possible for the ubiquitous grey.


Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the NHS’s email system.  NHSmail, as it’s known, is the single largest work-based email system in the world.  It’s used by most NHS organisations, including hospitals, GPs, Clinical Commissioning Groups and others.  It’s also used by many pharmacists and in social care settings, like care homes.  It’s relied upon by 840,000 users to transfer information swiftly, securely and accurately.  It’s no exaggeration to say that lives depend on it.  And it’s one of the many services that NHS Digital provides.


NHSmail comes with some pretty impressive vital statistics. Every month more than ONE BILLION emails are sent to NHSmail addresses.  That’s a lot of emails – around 1,100 per mailbox.


But before you think that NHS staff spend their entire time reading their email, know that vast majority of these messages are grey squirrels.  In fact, about 85% of messages sent to the NHS mail platform are spam.


At home, spam’s an irritation.  But in a healthcare setting, where a patient’s treatment depends on the right information being in the right place at the right time, it’s a serious problem.  Many traditional methods of filtering don’t work in the NHS.  Healthcare workers, for example, have perfectly legitimate reasons to use words like “penis” in their emails.


Our spam filters are based on pre-filter technology which provides a proactive protection in the cloud.

Cloud Pre-Filter reduces inbound email volume by up to 90 per cent, blocking spam and malware before it ever reaches NHSmail. With Cloud Pre-Filter, we have managed to reduce complexity and overhead. Want proof? I’ve just returned from holiday.  In my burgeoning inbox sat 140 mails.  Only two of them were spam.


But there’s a downside.  Effective technology to prevent cyber threats is important, but it is never going to be 100% reliable.  The piece of the jigaw that’s often forgotten is the user.  Teaching users how to spot spam and malicious email – and what to do – is the single most important action an organisation can take to protect itself.



The moral of this tale?  When it comes to emails, teach your staff that not all squirrels are the same.