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by GK Strategy 18th April, 2018
3 min read

The need to move beyond a paperless NHS

Incorporated in NHS England’s Five Year Forward View is the ambition to make all patient records “largely paperless” by 2020. However, the Government has recently dropped this target since the Watcher review in 2016 concluded it was “unrealistic”.

Whilst becoming paperless is an admirable policy goal, there needs to be a wider shift in focus and a compelling vision outlined of the actual benefits of digitisation – the idea of not using paper on its own will fail to articulate the digitisation gains that are required.

The lack of data sharing between NHS organisations has been a long-standing problem in the health service.

GPs, ambulance services and hospitals often lack historical data on patients’ current medication and ongoing conditions. There must be incentives and an effort to enthuse NHS leaders about the benefits that digitisation can bring.

The value of digitisation needs to be made tangible to staff, patients and citizens – if these actors are unable to see the value of such services they will not demand and embrace the necessary changes. These are large and complex organisations, with each specialist area having a different view on how “their patient” record should be used.

What is needed is a system-wide approach to information sharing in key NHS pathways to help patients as they are moved through different areas of the health service.

The NHS needs to look beyond the narrow focus of digitising paper records. Currently, 40% of a clinician’s time is spent waiting for relevant patient information, or making decisions based on information that is inaccurate or unreliable.

The focus should not be the ‘NHS being paperless’, but getting the right data to the right people to enable optimal decision making. A paperless NHS may result in a trust having automated medical records, but this is meaningless if there is no thought given to how this connects with GP systems.

Without a truly joined-up service, health and care provision will continue to be less effective, the NHS will be less efficient, and the patient experience poorer. Whilst rapidly improving technology may be the enabler to better patient care, there is a need for policy to question what it actually means for clinical pathways.

Improved technology alone will not fix the current systems. Indeed, the King’s Fund highlight that whilst the future of the NHS needs to be electronic, digitisation takes time to implement, and such progress is as much about people and processes as technology. A wider operation improvement strategy which includes electronic patient records is needed. This in turn fits with Watcher’s priority that digitisation should be carried out for the right reasons, with the goal of “better health, better healthcare, and lower cost”.

Instead of simply aiming to become paperless and improving existing digital solutions, the NHS needs to focus on the integration of services. The service must undertake widespread systems change, including a reconfiguration of the workforce and adaption to digital technologies.

Indeed, the digitisation of paper medical records represents only the first step of the transformation that is required in the NHS.

For more information on how GK’s health policy experts can support your business, contact Jack@gkstrategy.com

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