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UK bets on information power in new online health strategy

Ten-year plan aims to transform the way NHS information is used

UK Department of Health Power of Information NHS plan

The UK has unveiled a wide-ranging, ten-year strategy to change the way online healthcare information is used by patients and healthcare professionals.

The Power of Information will see patients gain greater online access to healthcare information and be able to book medical appointments via the web within three years

The government will also launch a new online portal next year. This will act as a single source of NHS, public health and social care information and replace a number of existing websites, including NHS Choices and NHS Direct.

The government also repeated its commitment, first made in January, to give people online access to their GP records by 2015.

“As a patient, why shouldn't you have the very best information about the services that are provided – whether it's in your GP practice or in hospitals across the country,” said Health Secretary Andrew Lansley.

“Why shouldn't you be able to see all the information that's in your own health record and have the opportunity, if you want to, to control your own health record alongside the doctors and nurses who look after you.”

“We are moving to a world where increasingly you will be able to access the NHS easily, get information on all the services the NHS provides, use that information, share in the decisions that are made about your care.”

The plans follow the government's Information Revolution consultation, which ran from October 2010 to January 2011 but was overshadowed by the development of the recently-passed, but much criticised, Health and Social Care Bill.

Dr Veena Raleigh, a senior fellow at health think-tank The King's Fund, said the strategy was a “bold and ambitious plan for placing more information in the hands of patients and making more use of data to improve patient care”.

“While we welcome the ambition and direction of the strategy, at a time of unprecedented financial constraint, some commissioners and providers will find it challenging to invest in developing information systems rather than frontline services. We need to be realistic about what is achievable in the short to medium term,” she added.

The strategy will also see the ways patients and the public access health services at a national level reduced to just three – the 999 emergency telephone service, the 111 telephone information and advice service and a “comprehensive online portal”.

The portal will bring together “the best of the relevant information and online services currently provided by the existing national web services: NHS Choices, NHS Direct online, NHS 111 online content and [personal health organiser] Healthspace”.

There are also plans for a series of “simple patient and professional portals” that will provide secure access to health and care record and online information, and the Department of Health will work on these with UK technology industry body Intellect.

Jeremy Nettle, chair of Intellect's health and social care council, said the strategy made important commitments that would transform the way care is delivered.

“Patients are the owners of their health and information. It is only right that the strategy focuses on putting the patients at the centre, empowering them with the means to access and interact with the health service as they do other services.”

In a nod to the 'maps and apps' consultation, the government also said that under the strategy “there will be considerable opportunities to exploit the cutting-edge innovation which can come through mobile technologies”.

Meanwhile, healthcare providers will be “encouraged to increase the use of mobile technologies for professional viewing and recording of information”.

However, despite the huge popularity of the health service's NHS Direct app, the strategy does not foresee a major role for centrally-directed projects.

“The most appropriate role for Government is not to create apps of its own, but instead to open up public data and content freely for re-use by independent information intermediaries to add value.”

Somewhat surprisingly for a policy of this size the main strategy document makes little reference to the digital divide and those with no access or desire to use internet services.

But a separate publication focused on providing an equality analysis of the plans says: “The strategy sets out a 'digital first' rather then 'digital by default' approach, making a clear commitment to adopting digital methods to deliver healthcare but making clear that face-to-face contact with health and care professionals will remain an essential, core part of care.”

22nd May 2012

From: Marketing

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