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Can the NHS ever truly be a ‘paperless’ organisation?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for the NHS to accelerate its digital services

Experts say the best way to treat a patient effectively and safely is with all their information in the right place, structured in the right way. So sharing data has never been more important. Jon Reed of Future Perfect (Healthcare) discusses what paperless means for professionals today.

Over the past few years, there has been a big drive within the NHS to ‘go paperless’ to share information and deliver better care.

To me, that seems to be the wrong priority. Or rather, the health and care systems have lost sight of the real problem we’re trying to solve. Paper alone was never the problem.

When you want to reach a state of shared data and you start with the very simplistic idea of being paperless.

Different organisations dashed to scan their paper records, and ended up with electronic paper. It still isn’t highly accessible. You can’t process it. You scroll through hundred-page PDFs to access the right information.

It’s difficult to keep up to date. That’s the problem, and ‘paperless’ is the wrong answer to the question of how health and care becomes better integrated with easily shareable data. What professionals need to do is put the patient back at the centre of things.

It’s a question of what information do we need at the right time, in the right place, so we can make decisions that will result in effective care? Ultimately, at the end of this goal, we will likely be paperless. That shouldn’t be the priority, however. The priority is to improve patient care, and a by-product will be the digital capability that allows for the free movement of data. 

The true goal of shared data puts the patient firmly in the middle. 

Clinicians need the information that’s necessary for the patient in front of them, and who is anyone to say what the clinician won’t need at the point of care? You might insist that they don’t need to see the patient’s social care or mental health record, but that might be relevant. It’s key to have easy access to all of it, because that will result in a full view of the patient and excellent care irrespective of what data is where.

The existing habit of using large, monolithic systems to manage vast quantities of data in many different silos is not helping the case for shared care. It sucks in huge amounts of funding and diverts the organisation’s attention towards it for years at the same time. 

Having a better blueprint now would enable health and care get there quicker. It might not tick every box for every organisation, but the patient is the priority above all.

Historically, NHS Digital – and its previous names over the years – has had initiatives in this area. But this work was never completed, and there has never been the leadership to enforce it. 

The NHSX Digital Academy is helping to educate chief executives on the ‘art of the possible’. Once an industry standard is reached, external supplier support becomes possible, and that is exactly what’s needed. That’s why at Future Perfect, we’ve been working on Panacea, a suite of solutions that can illuminate the entire patient pathway, with all of their data flowing unhindered.

Supporting shared care is going to take time – aiming for being paperless is only a tiny proportion of what’s needed, and shouldn’t be seen as the single solution to the challenge we face. The true goal of shared data should always be enhanced care for the patient as an individual with a life that spans many different services and places of care.

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