Female surgeon carrying medical reports running along a corridor in a hospital

What's stopping the NHS going digital? 

Targets to digitise the NHS have repeatedly been scrapped because of slow progress. But why is this important? We lay out the benefits of digitisation for patients, clinicians and taxpayers, explain why the process has been so delayed and how the NHS can ensure no more targets are missed.

It was supposed to happen in 2018, but first it was pushed back to 2020 and now it’s been postponed again until 2023.

We’re talking about the paperless NHS, a long-stated ambition of the UK government.

So, what went wrong and is the new target realistic?

Might a paperlite approach, where the use of documents is minimised, but not cut out completely, be more sensible?

While the events of 2020 will clearly have shifted resources away from certain longer-term strategic objectives, lockdown certainly sped up the digitisation of some services.

During 2019, around 90% of GP consultations were held face-to-face, but in April 2020 the NHS reported that more than 85% were now remote consultations, either by phone or videolink.

Benefits of paperless

The benefits of going paperless are easy to understand; digitised documents mean clinical data can be easily shared across the NHS, giving clinicians access to patient records and care plans wherever they are.

That generates efficiencies and cost savings, as well as enabling higher-quality clinical care.

Substantial investment is planned (£8 billion over five years), but the NHS has been hamstrung by the wide range of different IT systems being used by different parts of the service.

Many of these can’t work together, making it difficult for hospitals to share scans with GPs, for example.

The blame for missing the target to create an integrated paperless system of digital patient records – a key principle of the NHS Long Term Plan –  has been blamed on poor planning, a lack of governance and a lack of sufficient investment.

Sudden need

Shamir Patel, consultant pharmacist at Doctor 4U, says: “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the sudden need for a digital NHS with many doctors working remotely and needing access to patient records instantly.

“We’ve never experienced a health crisis as big as the current pandemic, and this could be the push we’ve needed to get the NHS digitalised to deal with these crises more effectively.

“While COVID-19 cannot be blamed for not reaching the 2020 target, it certainly hasn’t helped. Priorities have changed this year which may delay the process even further.

“This has been a problem throughout this project, other challenges arise which simply take more priority than this, and so it gets delayed again.”

Charles Cao is head of EMEA operations and Strategy at Conga, a digital document management specialist which works to simplify and automate document handling, supporting organisations’ digital transformation.

He says that the coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the limitations of manual processes, which add unnecessary risk and limit the NHS’ ability to scale up services to meet increasing demand.

Juggling systems

He said: “Documents are the building blocks of every organisation, but when teams have to manually create, review, track, and manage those documents, it keeps them from operating efficiently.

“Healthcare providers often manage patient care through multiple manual systems. In a role that’s manual and paperwork-heavy, providers need a solution that allows them to spend more time on creating a patient-first experience, rather than chasing down paperwork and juggling multiple systems.

“With an integrated system, providers will have a 360-degree view of the patient, as well as the ability to deliver truly personalised experiences.”

And it’s not just about digitising manual processes to improve the patient experience, introducing new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), as part of the holistic IT architecture is helping to transform diagnosis and treatment of patients.

Invest enough time

So, is the NHS now on track to meet its 2023 target?

Shamir Patel questions whether even that is achievable.

He says: “We are already seeing progress in the move towards a digital NHS, particularly in GP surgeries, but making hospital trusts completely digital is a bigger task.

“This requires lots of funding, time, and investment in training all NHS staff on how to use the technology, plus 24/7 IT support in case technology fails which could seriously disrupt patient care.

“Finding the right time to change an entire infrastructure in hospitals that are overwhelmed, exceptionally busy, underfunded, and dealing with competing priorities on a daily basis is challenging to say the least.

“Yes, there are huge benefits to going digital and it will significantly improve patient care, however, if it is not implemented properly it runs the risk of doing more harm than good, so it’s important to invest enough time to get it right and set more realistic targets.”

While past experience may inspire pessimism, there is also cause to look to the future with fresh eyes.

Of course, money will always be an issue, but the pandemic helped underscore how important the NHS is to the public, and that could help protect it from unpopular funding cuts going forward.

No doubt the NHS still faces huge challenges in tackling COVID-19, and the country will have to foot the huge financial cost, but the digitisation of the NHS is too big a prize to keep postponing forever.

Find out more about how Brother is helping healthcare settings to digitise their processes here, or discover our range of specialist technology for primary and secondary healthcare.

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