Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt wants the NHS to be “paperless” by 2018.
He was due to say so today in a widely trailed speech that, if Hunt is still in politics by the allotted date, is likely to come back to haunt him.
The thinking behind the statement is laudable. Information technology can significantly enhance patient care and at the same time deliver enormous efficiency savings to the NHS. It can make health care more transparent to patients, medical staff and regulators.
We, the general population, should have access to electronic medical records and we should be able to determine how widely we share the information our records contain.
But it is one thing to set out the vision, it is another to deliver. Hunt’s speech could have been made a decade ago, as the ill fatted National Programme for IT in the NHS (NPfIT) was being devised, yet the obstacles towards its delivery remain as significant today as they were in 2003.
The present government has some advantages. It put the NPfIT out of its misery and it has negotiated its way out of some terrible contracts. There will be no national programme or central database. Instead there will be targets, roadmaps and technology standards, but where Labour spent £12 billion, the Coalition will provide no new money.
Local NHS trusts will be expected to overhaul their IT infrastructure in the midst of unprecedented organisational change and with diminishing real terms budgets.
There is fantastic innovation going on in health care IT once again. Some trusts are investing heavily and are reaping the benefits. Some of those who bore the brunt of the pain with introducing pioneering systems under the NPfIT regime are showcasing the true benefits of digital healthcare. While some of the prime contractors under the NPfIT have suffered, a range of other, strong, high quality IT service providers are stepping into the market.
Nonetheless, the problems are plain. Within the NHS, many trusts will need extra central leadership and funding to deliver on Hunt’s promise. Talking to suppliers, you find excitement about the prospects of significant new work and the capabilities of the technology they wish to deploy, but concern about future funding streams, policy uncertainty and skill shortages.
Hunt is highlighting the prospect of £4.4 billion efficiency savings through the proper use of IT in the NHS. However, unless he accepts that the government has to ‘Invest to Save’ in NHS IT rather than ‘Save to Invest’, we risk squandering another chance to give our health services the IT infrastructure that could make a difference