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Is the plan for a paperless NHS in danger of missing the point?

The ambition for the NHS to be ‘paperless at the point of delivery’ has already been revised from 2018 to 2020, but a recent survey found that almost half (46%) of healthcare directors and CIOs polled said they were unsure over whether they would meet this deadline.

We’ve already seen one failed project to create a single, secure system of electronic patient records for every GP and hospital in the country – the ill-fated National Programme for IT (NPfIT). Will NHS trusts facing the challenge of digitising vast quantities of historical records fare any better?

The problem is that the project seems to be primarily about digitising existing processes. But as Dave Coplin from Microsoft said at our recent Customer Forum, using technology to make old working practices better isn’t exactly innovative – it’s improving efficiency, not effectiveness. Going paperless should be an enabler, not an end in itself.

So if going paperless is simply about replacing handwritten records with online ones, it will not achieve a step change in care. As well as making information more easily available, the move to digital needs to introduce joined-up information and joined-up care, making the time healthcare professionals spend with patients more productive. For example, if patients could access their records themselves, would this encourage them to learn more about their condition, so they can then have more effective discussions in their appointments with healthcare providers? Isn’t it about time that people could be notified about hospital appointments by email instead of by post?

The key to making this change work is not to rush into a technical solution, but to take a step back and look at what the business actually needs and how best to provide it. To help organisations in this situation, we’ve developed a transformation framework - Cloud Intermediation Services (CIMS) - best on best practice, ISO standards and our own experience. This helps them align their strategy, governance, people and processes to meet their business priorities. They can then review the technologies available, including cloud, and develop the most appropriate solution for their needs.

I hope that the teams working towards making their NHS Trusts paperless will have the time to step back and think about how they can use digitisation to improve their services and develop new ones that will help improve patient care, rather than simply replacing one system with another.

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