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DEC 10/2013

A paperless NHS by 2018: an achievable target?

NHS doctors are currently seeing the British health service undergoing a number of changes, as the government continues to restructure the system with the aim of making it fit for purpose for the 21st century.

One of the most significant and ambitious plans that has been put into place by the coalition is the ongoing effort to embrace digital record-keeping in a more substantial manner. Earlier this year, health secretary Jeremy Hunt issued a challenge to medical professionals, laying down a target for an entirely paperless NHS by 2018.

It is believed that making this change would have a number of beneficial effects for NHS operations - but a number of challenges and hurdles still need to be cleared before this can be made a reality.

The government's goals
As outlined in January 2013, the government is hoping that digital information will be fully available across NHS and social care services by April 2018. To accomplish this, it has set down a number of milestones and interim targets en route to the five-year end goal.

By March 2015, all patients should be able to get online access to their own health records held by their GP, while a paperless referrals system will be adopted, meaning doctors can use email instead of sending a physical letter when referring a patient to a hospital.

Meanwhile, clear plans need to be implemented to enable secure linking of electronic health and care records wherever they are held, and for this data to follow individuals - with their consent - to any part of the system. This will ensure there is as complete a record as possible of the care every patient receives.

It is expected that this will deliver cost savings of more than £4 billion and free up professionals' time to spend on clinical responsibilities, while helping patients to assume greater control over their own care.

Progress so far
Since this announcement, the government has been able to make a £1 billion funding commitment in September 2013, which will be spent on some of the necessary technology to make this vision a reality.

Using this new technology, hospitals, GP surgeries and out-of-hours doctors providing emergency care will be able to access patients' complete medical details routinely across the country for the first time. This will provide them with more relevant information at their fingertips and help to reduce errors, such as drugs being prescribed incorrectly because paper notes have been lost.

Meanwhile, a recent study from Perceptive Software and market researchers Vanson Bourne has demonstrated that healthcare workers have, by and large, been persuaded to buy into the government's ambitions. 90 per cent of NHS workers are aware of the paperless pledge, while 71 per cent have signalled their support.

Half of all medical staff believe going digital will have a positive impact on their department and two-thirds think it will improve patient care, with many looking forward to being able to share records instantly, reduce their storage space and avoid lost data.

What still needs to be done
However, the same report noted a number of areas where progress is still needed. NHS IT staff said they believe only 41 per cent of patients currently have digitised records, leading the majority of IT decision makers and healthcare professionals to raise doubts as to whether 2018 is an achievable target date.

Indeed, of those who have not already digitised 100 per cent of their patient data, 58 per cent believe the process will take a further two to five years to roll out, meaning 2021 would be a more realistic deadline.

Moreover, 82 per cent of heads of trust are expecting additional funding from the government to push forward the paperless project - showing the government still has plenty to do if it is to realise the full benefits of its targeted digital future.  

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