At the beginning of the year, health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced his vision to have a ‘paperless’ NHS by 2018. The aim behind the announcement is two-fold: to save money and improve services. Many believe the target may be overly ambitious given that huge swathes of the health service still rely on paperwork to record results and data and communicate with patients.
But looking at the way other industries have adopted technology to improve their services and the way they operate, we need to look at what the NHS can learn from these innovations and how it can do so in the timescale it has been set.
Improving patient safety
The goal for a paperless NHS has become all the more important in the wake of Robert Francis QC’s report on the failings of care at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust and the need to improve quality in the health service.
Francis was clear about the central role information plays in allowing organisations and their boards to examine the performance of their staff and the care their organisations provide. He highlighted the pitfalls of not having access to real‑time data, and the importance of the way data is distributed across organisations and indeed within organisations.
NHS organisations could work far more efficiently and effectively if they had the right set up in place. The current reliance on paper-based systems often means many organisations cannot respond quickly and effectively to try to predict and prevent poor care. It means staff do not always have immediate access to useful information about their patients. It also means that patients have to rely on a system of endless forms and unnecessary bureaucracy, when many are accustomed to managing their business with banks, airlines or supermarkets via a ‘paperless’ system.
Addressing the issue
As part of the government’s response to Francis, work is underway to address this issue. Demand for transparency is growing, and the NHS is rightly expected to improve standards of care and restore public confidence in services, while being fully open and accountable. Access to timely and accurate information is key to achieving all of this.
As part of this, the NHS Confederation has been working with NHS organisations and national bodies, including regulators, to examine how we can reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and use the information we have to its best use. The end goal of this work is to free up more staff time for care and to enable the NHS to be far more quick to response challenges of patient care. The point is clear that in order for organisations and their staff to do the job well, we must be able to have access to timely data to provide the best and safest possible care to patients.
Having a paperless NHS is just one part of making this happen. For a truly responsive health service that is able to respond to pressures quickly, we need to be able to share information across the service. We need to be able to empower staff and managers to own and manage their data to improve where and how care is provided and improve their and the experience of working in the NHS.
What is important to remember is that the NHS needs a smarter system of information use, not a bigger one. A ‘paperless’ NHS can go a long way to making this a reality, if we make it work in the right way.