Jeremy Hunt, the UK Government’s Health Secretary, has issued a challenge to its National Health Service (NHS): to become paperless by 2018. This follows the publication of a report suggesting that the NHS can save billions of pounds by implementing technology that provides electronic operation and delivery of prescriptions, referrals and care records (see the Department of Health announcement here for full details).
Broadly, the aim is that by operating these processes electronically, clinicians will be able to spend more time providing care rather than filling in paperwork. This way, it is envisaged that the NHS could save as much as £5bn over a ten-year period. However, while the promise of improving the quality and efficiency of health care is welcome, there are several challenges that must be overcome in order to realise the potential benefits.
It is PAC’s belief that the core challenge will be to convince patients that the systems underpinning the paperless NHS are secure and that their personal data will remain safe. With Hunt vowing that patients will be able to opt out of electronic health records if they choose, generating sufficient trust in the system will be essential in order to convince patients to opt in on a significant scale.
Patients opting-out of the system will erode the potential savings to be made as they will still require care records, referrals and prescriptions. Not only will this cause a duplication of effort, raising costs, but it will also fly in the face of operating on a ‘paperless’ basis and will hold back the whole project.
Public trust in the security of NHS records is not high at present, with several ‘data loss’ incidents over recent years attracting widespread media attention. This included reports that over 5,000 records go missing every day, while sensitive records have been dumped in rubbish bins and faxed to the wrong number.
That said, the case could (and should) be made that moving towards electronic records can make data more secure. For example digital information can be encrypted, making it harder for non-approved personnel to access. Also, unlike paper records, digital files cannot be physically lost unless deleted, making them less susceptible to being ‘misplaced’.
In order to win the trust of patients regarding the handling of their personal information, lessons must be learnt from the public sector data losses of the past decade. The Poynter Review of 2008 that investigated the Child Benefit data loss of 2007, said that data security must become a key aspect of organisational culture when dealing with personal information. Integrating security of personal data into the culture of a ‘paperless NHS’ will clearly be a decisive factor in whether or not the initiative gets off the ground, let alone generates the benefits envisaged.
To find out more about the challenges and implications of a paperless NHS, as well as the wider UK health and social care software and IT services market, refer to PAC’s upcoming research into the sector.
Post by Dominic Trott