The Paperless NHS…..?

Recently Jeremy Hunt – the Health Secretary – has stated that the NHS will become paperless by 2018 to “save billions”. But this is not a new project. Before the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) and Connecting for Health (CfH) were even a twinkle in a Health Secretary’s eye, the Information for Health (IfH) agenda clearly outlined the need for a paperless NHS (initially released in September 1998).

In fact, successive Health Secretaries, and other NHS leaders, have often suggested dates by when the NHS must become paperless, and yet in 2013, we still have a mainly paper led system. Granted, there have been great developments in this – for example, most GPs work in a paper-light fashion, and referrals, results etc. are all moving to a more paperless system. However, paper – and other hard copy records (e.g. X-rays) – still exists in the NHS.

Most of the changes that have come about in the field have not happened due to some mandated requirement. Instead, they are often brought in by clinical and business leaders to solve real business and clinical issues. Paperless solutions can lead to a reduction in treatment/medication errors, quicker time to diagnosis, shorter time to treatment, more collaborative diagnostics (allowing a wider range of specialists to be involved) and overall better patient care.

From a business perspective there are a number of benefits. As well as reducing the time taken in certain business processes (look at how email has transformed the business world) there is greater traceability, more accuracy and an overall change in the behaviours of many organisations for the good. Unfortunately, the Health Secretary fell short of announcing any new funding to assist with the paperless NHS vision. And so, again, organisations will attempt to become paper-light through localised procurement and innovation.

There are many suppliers in the “paperless office” space and organisations need to ensure that they choose the right partner for what they are trying to achieve. The software solution alone is not the only consideration. What are you trying to achieve? Clinical notes digitisation has a number of specific issues which need to be carefully managed if the digitisation process is not going to negatively impact on clinical care.

Considerations as to the security model and the storage requirements will play heavily into the service definition, and it is often better to overestimate the growth of data by a small margin than to underestimate. Many vendors will offer an assessment as part of their overall offering.

Organisations need to be sure that they are looking at how and where the information will be required. Make certain that various clinicians are part of the working group which defines how the information should be used. Too often projects like this can become centred on the technology, when actually technology is just about enabling the change to information flows. Clinical participation is critical to service success.

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