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UK outlines pipedream of a paperless health service

Health secretary issues empty 'challenge' for NHS to make better use of IT

Making better use of technology was high on the agenda of the UK's former health secretary Andrew Lansley and it remains a continuing theme for his successor.

Since taking up post in September, Jeremy Hunt has presided over the launch in October of a 'learning lab' to boost NHS uptake of digital technology and earlier this year his entire department was told it must become more 'digitally enabled'.

Now Hunt wants to transform the way the NHS operates by using technology to connect patients and healthcare professionals to health information.

Speaking to the Policy Exchange yesterday, he challenged the NHS to go paperless, saying such a move could save billions of pounds, improve services and even help meet the challenges of an ageing population.

“The NHS cannot be the last man standing as the rest of the economy embraces the technology revolution. It is crazy that ambulance drivers cannot access a full medical history of someone they are picking up in an emergency – and that GPs and hospitals still struggle to share digital records,” Hunt said.

“Previous attempts to crack this became a top down project akin to building an aircraft carrier. We need to learn those lessons – and in particular avoid the pitfalls of a hugely complex, centrally specified approach. Only with world class information systems will the NHS deliver world class care.”

That's all well and good and not a million miles away from some of the EU's eHealth plans.

But on closer inspection Hunt looks to have made an empty challenge with many things that “should happen” and little to nothing that “must”.

So he wants to see everyone who wants it to be offered online access to their GP records by 2015.

While laudable, this has already been promised at least twice before during the last 12 months (see here and here).

Other things the health secretary wants to see by 2018 include email, rather than paper-based, referrals and “clear plans” in place for a patient's electronic health and care records to be securely linked.

The wish list ends with a nebulous call for “digital information to be fully available across NHS and social care services” by April 2018.

It all leads up to the rather grand headline challenge to the NHS that it should go paperless by 2018.

It might be churlish to rake up the health service's previous IT problems. IT projects are tricky, big IT problems are really tricky and the NHS is the world's fifth largest employer …

Still, it will be up to the NHS Commissioning Board to lead the implementation of this policy and it says it has a “clear expectation” that hospitals should plan to make information digitally and securely available by 2014/15.

In practice this means that different professionals involved in the treatment of one person would be able to share information.

This sounds practical enough, though in itself no easy task, and it's hard to argue with the comment by the Board's national director for patients and information Tim Kelsey that “the digital data revolution is key to improving outcomes and putting patients and carers more in control”.

Nevertheless, Hunt's 2018 goal for the NHS as a whole to go paperless seems arbitrary, wishy-washy and unachievable.

As a BusinessWeek feature put it:

“Some believe that the paperless office is not that far off.”

But that article was published in 1975, and my desk for one is far from being paperless right now.

17th January 2013

From: Healthcare

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