UKA correspondentMonday 13 February 2017

Government drops target for ‘paperless NHS’ by 2018

Minister acknowledges that IT in hospitals is in no state to make it a realistic ambition

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has quietly ditched his flagship pledge to create a 'paperless NHS' by 2018 – blaming “weak hospital IT systems”.

Jeremy HuntHe has told the House of Lords select committee on the Long Term Sustainability of the NHS that he has been advised the target, set in 2013, is not achievable.

“I perhaps rather bravely said I wanted the NHS to be paperless by 2018 in my first few months as health secretary, and I am quite relieved that most people seem to have forgotten that I made that promise,” Hunt said.

“I think we are making good progress. There is definitely lots to do. We are weak at the moment on hospital IT systems.

“Professor Bob Wachter of the University of California, San Francisco, came over and looked at the state of hospital IT systems, and has given us some very good advice. He does not think 2018 will be possible.”

Hunt told the committee the aim is now to “get our hospitals to world class levels over the course of the next five years”.

Nothing world class

He added: “We have some reasonable (hospital) IT systems in this country but, according to Professor Wachter, we do not have any that are world class anywhere.”

He said there is “a long way to go when it comes to hospital IT systems”.

Wachter was appointed in late 2015 to lead a review into digital technology in the NHS.

In 2013, the then new health secretary outlined his ambition for the NHS to go paperless by 2018, promising compatible electronic records for patients so their health information could be used by different health and social care organisations.

A year earlier, Tim Kelsey, then national director of patients and information at the NHS Commissioning Board, set a target date of 2015 for a paperless health service.

The issue arose during the Lords inquiry when peers suggested a “fully digitally matured NHS” was even more vital given the tight spending squeeze in the years to come.

Big strides

In reply, Hunt said GPs had made remarkable strides after they “ignored” Labour's doomed National IT Programme for the NHS and decided to “go their own way”.

“Amazingly, without anyone murmuring about this, without any request for funding from the Government, they have digitised people’s lifetime records, going right back to the pre-internet era, and we have complete medical histories we are now able to use,” he said.

From next year, a 'Blue Button scheme' will allow patients to access their medical records online from home, as well as at their GP's surgery.

But although these electronic records are now “flowing as far as the A&E department”, they are “not yet flowing inside the rest of the hospital”.

The evidence was given to the House of Lords inquiry in December, but went unreported until a transcript was produced.

Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0