The data challenge within the NHS

Mikko Soirola, VP, Liaison Technologies

1 March 2013

In January this year, the UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt published an ambitious timetable for a paperless NHS by 2018. Hunt described it as ‘crazy’ that paramedics, for example, could not access the medical records of a patient when an ambulance is called to an emergency.

By 2014 he wants hospitals and GPs to be able to access and update GP records at the touch of a button. By 2015 all patients should be able to see their own records online, and by 2018 the aim is for every part of the NHS and social care to be connected.

Just how feasible are these ambitious plans though? After all, the previous Labour government attempted to implement patient record systems in NHS hospitals, only for the plug to be pulled by the coalition in 2011.

Getting its data in order

It’s all well and good saying you want electronic patient records, paperless referrals and more, but there are some very practical realities that need to be addressed to put this plan into action. The national programme focuses on a centralised area for every piece of NHS data, which some have deemed as ‘overambitious’. It’s good to have clear objectives, but first and foremost the NHS needs to get its data organised — and fast.

In order to make patient data digitally and securely available, the quality of information and data integration must be improved. A critical area of business, which has long been ignored within the NHS.

A recent report by PwC suggests a potential £4.4bn saving could be made by the NHS from better use of information and technology. However, there would be a long preparation process to make this a reality as the quality of data is questionable. To be in a position to digitise those records in the first place the data quality issue has to be resolved.

In the NHS, data is often treated with scant regard and the term ‘rubbish in rubbish out’ is particularly pertinent. There are few organisations that have a dedicated position of corporate data manager and while some degree of data management may occur at a departmental level, it is not enough. After all, if no one has strategic responsibility how can it improve?

The reality: paperless, or paper light?

Whilst there are risks that come with holding paper documents just as there are risks with digital records, the health secretary must also address the needs of the whole population. As far as being able to view your own records online, what will happen to those without Internet access or those who aren’t technically minded?

In addition to this, a paperless NHS would essentially require medical information to be shared across services. This has sparked some criticism that the UK government is bringing about the end of medical privacy. Even NHS IT experts have voiced their concerns that the call for a paperless NHS will not be easy to answer. They believe the ingrained culture of the health service will mean resistance to a paperless future.

Leading by example

It’s not all doom and gloom though. A paperless NHS has the potential to save billions of pounds, improve patient care from the point of view of speeding up processes and avoid patients having to repeat themselves to different practitioners.

The NHS could take a leaf out of St Helens and Knowsley Hospitals NHS Trust’s book, which recently went completely paperless proving all the critics wrong. At £1.2m, it did come at a cost, but it is predicted to save more than £3.2m over five years.

The example of St Helens and Knowsley could help to make the NHS’s plans a reality. But, for it to work, data integration has to be a priority because if you have poor data to work with from the start, you will never maximise your return or achieve best practice.

Lets face it, the need to streamline the delivery of our health service in the UK is growing by the day, and someone has to address the situation. I think it is likely that we will eventually go digital, and it is certainly a step in the right direction, but hard copy patient records will not be completely taken out of the picture.

The idea of a paperless office has been discussed for the last thirty years, but has not come to fruition, to date. Having said that, with a paperless NHS now high up on the political agenda, I predict we will see data integration becoming a very hot topic for the NHS in 2013.


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