Towards a paperless NHS: how digitised records can improve patient care

Clinical technology has moved on massively since the NHS started in 1948, yet the way patient information is recorded hasn’t. Is it time to fully embrace digital documents to reduce costs and improve efficiency and security?

For decades, there has been talk of transforming the NHS into a paperless organisation, says Sean Brennan, director of communications for the Institute of Health Records and Information Management (IHRIM). The current government initially committed to a paperless NHS by 2018, he says, although that figure was revised on the back of a report, Making IT work, by Dr Robert Wachter, who said that a target should be set for all trusts to be “largely digitalised” by 2023. 

Brennan believes that – with the huge changes in the way in which services are delivered across the NHS – we may have now reached the tipping point. While paper could support a system where people simply visited their local GP or hospital, he explains, it’s ill-suited to today’s complex NHS, where care can be delivered anywhere from a supermarket walk-in centre to a primary care hospital. 

“Wherever care is delivered a record has to be produced of what’s happened, and you cannot bring all that together with paper – it’s just not doable,” he says. 

Digitisation means that clinical data can be shared across the NHS, leading to higher-quality clinical care. It’s a change that Aaron Hopkinson, Brother’s product and solutions manager – print and scan, believes is long overdue. 

“Businesses are constantly facing pressure to improve efficiencies, optimise processes and reduce costs, so it’s no surprise that the ideal of the paperless office has captured the imagination of many sectors, including healthcare services,” he explains.

But a completely paperless NHS may be a step too far for such a paper-heavy institution, he suggests. “By changing the terminology of paperless to paper-light, the daunting task seems to be more manageable. Paper-light is the focus of cutting down on paper, but not getting rid of it completely.” 

“I honestly think that having a strategy that is called a paperless NHS is wrong,” agrees Brennan. “What we should be doing is supporting delivery of care with technology where possible.” 

Desktop scanners are often the best solution for busy NHS surgeries needing to digitise documents, says Hopkinson. They are designed to digitise, share and archive documents quickly and efficiently, with one-touch operation and seamless integration into patient information and management systems, including Docman and EMIS. 

Two of Brother’s leading desktop scanners are the ADS-2400N, which is perfect for smaller practices and is capable of digitising 3000 documents a day, and the ADS-3000N, which can convert 5,000 patient documents into electronic files daily. 

Hopkinson also believes scanning recognises the changes in the ergonomics of the modern office. “When documents are digital, time-consuming manual activities associated with paper – such as accessibility, physically moving documents between desks or departments for processing – are eliminated,” he says. 

“Dealing with the paperwork we receive was a massive problem for us before we started scanning,” says Tracy Keogh, practice manager at the Farley Road medical practice in south Croydon, which uses an ADS-2100. “70 per cent of the communication we receive from hospitals still arrives by post. Letters can go missing and get passed around departments, proving an inefficient way of working.

“Every piece of documentation that has the patient’s name on it is scanned and saved to the patient’s electronic notes. It means that all our staff have immediate access to that documentation. It’s improved our workflow and, therefore, our patient care.” 

Once documents have been digitised, it is much easier to protect patient confidentiality, too. They can be made secure with passwords and different access levels can be introduced, which could prevent certain users from being able to delete documents or give some employees read-only access, preventing them from copying or printing the data. Documents can’t get lost either, and there’s no longer any need for employees to spend time shredding confidential files. 

“It’s easier to see audit trails, as everything that happens to a document is recorded electronically – you can see who has accessed a document and when it has been edited. You don’t get these benefits with paper,” says Hopkinson. 

Digital files takes up far less space too, so there are lower costs for storing, searching, retrieving, reproducing and distributing documents, which can speed up response times to clinical queries as well. Advanced software means that scanned documents are searchable and future-proofed, so that data and information can be accessed should software become obsolete. 

“There’s nothing wrong with paper,” says Brennan, “and that is one of the issues that we need to overcome, because paper is actually quite easy to work with – it’s just not shareable.” 

Hopkinson agrees. “There needs to be a distinction made between the needs of information management – where there are undoubted benefits in filing, storing and processing electronic documents compared with paper documents – and other daily business needs,” he says. 

“When it comes to reading, analysing and editing documents, many employees prefer to do this in hard copy, meaning there is still a role for print to play.”

Take a look at our Paper-lite infographic which ask if firms really are going paperless. 

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