Is a Paperless NHS Possible?

It could save billions and lead to a whole new way of doing business in the NHS but is it practical?Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said that he wants the biggest organisation in Britain to do just that and in just 2 years by 2018. Moving patient records into the digital domain will enable vital information to follow them around wherever they go, reducing the possibility of errors and helping the NHS to operate more effectively.

It’s a huge task to undertake, more so because of the massive numbers of historical records that need to be digitised if they are going to be available at the touch of a button. The key is that if ambulance staff turn up at an emergency and have full access to the patient’s records then they can better provide care and increase their chances of a good outcome. That’s just one area where full digitisation can be of benefit.

The Pennine Trust which has undertaken the job of digitizing historical records has predicted that it would need to scan in the region of 100 million records in the first year of their project, creating an eyewatering 450 million different images. That’s not the end of the problem. While many trusts are playing catch up to deliver their targets for 2018, some are continuing to create additional paper by not having the right recording processes in place already.

The paucity of data sharing is seen as a major problem for the NHS where a record may be taken digitally but there is no strategy in place to share it with other bodies such as GPs or ambulance staff. According to some experts, there is just not the IT infrastructure in place that will enable proper sharing and provide a more streamlined process for doctors and their patients. Many doctors are complaining that it takes just as long to bring up digital data as it does to access paper written ones in some cases and that learning new systems, which may vary across trusts, can take valuable time away from consultations.

Meanwhile, in admin offices around the NHS, large swathes of paper are still being printed out when they could be much more economically handled. Documents rather than being printed and wasting resources could be downloaded onto digital devices such as smart phone or tablets. For those hard copies that need to be produced, offices may well have to switch to more eco-friendly, energy efficient models that cut down the costs and save money on health care administration budgets.

All this needs to done, according to Jeremy Hunt, by 2018. Considering how slowly public bodies, including hospitals, tend to move, the prospect of achieving this goal seems challenging to say the least. Ensuring digital systems are compatible across the board is one major issue but so is the fact that progress needs to be scaled up considerably if the target is going to be reached. There has already been a big delay in the flag ship NHS data sharing program and, whilst the will may be there, for many trusts there simply won’t be enough time or resources to go paperless any time soon.

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