The digital challenge: are NHS organisations on track to meet paperless goals?

Tracey Lethbridge, head of UK public sector at OpenText, discusses digitisation in the NHS and whether the service is on track to meet its paperless target.

Overstretched and under resourced, the National Health Service (NHS) is an organisation we all rely upon and yet often take for granted. Whilst virtually every aspect of modern life has been radically reshaped by innovation and technology, the UK’s delivery of healthcare remains locked into a service model created when the organisation was founded more than 70 years ago.

The NHS is made up of hundreds of separate but linked Trusts operating on different systems and located across the country. It’s no wonder managing the complex interactions and data flows between trusts, systems and individuals has become a long and arduous task that too often falls on patients themselves.

With new models of care emerging and evolving all the time, there is a need for the NHS to adopt more effective ways to manage and share their information between organisations, geographies, systems and individuals.

In January 2019, the UK government announced its radical NHS Long Term Plan. Designed to address the lack of interoperability between these organisations and to improve the quality of patient care across the UK, the plan states that all secondary healthcare providers will need to transition to digital records by 2023. This – in theory – will enable clinicians to access patient records anywhere and anytime. Within only four years, the entire healthcare landscape in the UK could change.

But, are NHS Trusts really on track to meet this ambitious deadline?

The long road to paperless

According to recent FOI research carried out by OpenText, only one in ten (12%) of NHS Trusts are fully digitised so far. This means only one in ten organisations are benefiting from a ‘one patient, one record’ environment.

Ultimately, accurate and timely patient data is at the heart of delivering quality care. Without a single access point to this data, NHS organisations cannot derive true value from the data. This can lead to delayed treatments, increased waiting times and overworked healthcare professionals. Most importantly, without accurate and accessible data at the point of care, a patient’s life could even be on the line.

Digitising could enable clinicians to boost their productivity and help more people, more quickly. Yet too many NHS organisations are still relying on paper-based patient records. In fact, when asked, although only 16 of the 52 Trusts surveyed (31%) were able to provide an answer, these Trusts alone created more than 1.7 million paper-based records over the course of a three-month period.

There is no question about it, progress needs to be realised if healthcare services are to be made safer, more effective and more efficient. The paper approach is past its sell by date.

A new, digital chapter

Whilst the paperless ambition seems a far-away dream for some NHS organisations – due to budget restraints and staff shortages – others are preparing for a truly digital future.

Over half (67%) of Trusts plan to fully digitise in the future. Forty-two percent plan to meet the 2023 deadline and abolish paper records in the next four years. The key for these Trusts will be to ensure staff are equipped to manage and make the most of the technologies which will be available to them.

If NHS organisations are empowered – through modern technologies and education – to evolve working practices, they will not only save money but also improve the service they provide to patients. With 85% of Trusts investing in some sort of digital training, it appears education is set to play a huge role in helping the NHS to meet its paperless goal.

The NHS is already one of the biggest data generators in the world but thanks to traditional paper-based patient records it has operated in siloes for far too long. Taking a digital approach to information management could reduce the documentation pressures placed on clinicians, enabling them to focus on what matters; their patients. By creating a more standardised approach to document management, it could also help to preserve one of the UK’s most valuable assets; the National Health Service.


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