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
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
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
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.