A paperless NHS – burden or benefit?
20 February 2013
By Phil Greenwood
A completely paperless NHS is not without significant challenges and it is not always best practice, writes one records specialist
The volume of information generated and stored globally grows by an alarming 59 per cent each year. With the volume boosted significantly by unstructured data associated with social media usage and mobile devices, many organisations have to look at how they can manage their often vast legacy archives of paper-based information in an increasingly complex digital environment. Frequently, the organisation will see the digitisation of all its entire paper archive as the fast track to a fully digital future. The reality, however, is not so straightforward.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently announced plans to make NHS patient records paperless by 2018. He pledged that at least one region in England would have a fully portable, electronic health record system in place before the next election.
A growing body of evidence shows that reducing an organisationfs dependence on paper could boost efficiency, reduce risks and cost, and enhance the ability to extract and harness the full value of information. Being able to share patient information quickly, securely and seamlessly between GP surgeries, hospitals and the emergency services could save precious time, and even lives.
A completely paperless environment such as the one proposed by Jeremy Hunt, while a laudable objective, is not without significant challenges, however, and it is not always best practice. Before considering a complete information management overhaul, a note of caution is required.
While it is tempting to think that huge gains in efficiency can be found by digitising everything, this is an expensive process. It does not necessarily require the scanning of every single document in an organisations archive. A better approach would be to digitise only where and when required. In practice, this means that new documents should be stored digitally, while documents from existing paper files that will be retrieved rarely should only be absorbed into the digital system if and when they are actually required.
To be effective, organisations are advised to take a long hard look at their paper-based information; decide what is most important, or used most often, and then digitise those documents; archiving the remainder in a secure, environmentally-controlled and monitored off-site location or ensuring they are securely destroyed in line with legal requirements and mandated retention schedules.
For organisations such as the NHS to achieve efficiency, the first step is for them to understand what information is held and where it is. Only then will it become possible to understand what to digitise, what to store off-site and what to destroy. To take any other approach is likely to incur unnecessary cost and resource. To rush into a decision, that would require the transformation of box upon box of patient records, is not advisable.
Jeremy Hunt is right to challenge the NHSf approach to information management to drive efficiency and bring NHS record into the digital age. However, in the current economic climate, it may be wise to see a paperless NHS as a longer term goal. The first step for the NHS should be the creation of a paper-light, paper-efficient environment.
Phil Greenwood is a director at Iron Mountain