Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has declared that "the NHS cannot be the last man standing as the rest of the economy embraces the technology revolution".
Hunt is expected to expand upon his projected targets later today, which will include making information digitally and securely available for all UK patients by 2015, as well as making the NHS entirely paperless by 2018.
Computing has spoken to various experts in the field of medical technology solutions in order to find out, beyond the political spin, what health authorities will realistically need to do in order to stand a hope of achieving these goals.
Mikko Soirola, vice president of Liaison Technologies, said:
"The savings potential of going digital is undeniable, but let's consider the preparation process. To go digital and gain maximum benefit, the data quality has to be of the highest order and data integration across the entire supply chain has to be sorted. To be in a position to digitise those records in the first place, this issue has to be resolved."
However, in many organisations, continued Soirola, "data is treated with scant regard and the term ‘rubbish in, rubbish out' is particularly pertinent. There are few NHS organisations which have a dedicated position of data manager. Which means no one checks if organisational data is correct and accurate. And if no one has responsibility, who ensures that data is cleaned, entered and stored correctly? The sad fact is that if you have poor data to work with from the start, you will never maximise your return or achieve best practice. We will see data integration becoming a hot topic in 2013."
David Bolton, director of public sector market development at business intelligence vendor QlikTech, agreed that quantity and quality of data are of paramount importance:
"To make the best decisions for patients, the NHS needs to be able to harness vast quantities of data to provide information and insight through appropriate analysis, learn from trends and patterns in order to provide the most effective care, while ensuring privacy controls are in place to protect the patient," said Bolton.
However, director of business informatics at Colchester NHS Trust, Orlando Agrippa, believes that Hunt's guidelines may have hit the nail on the head. Following a programme of data sharing between GPs and hospitals over the past 18 months, Agrippa said the Trust has changed dramatically.
"[We've advanced] from an organisation where people didn't understand or interact with numbers from their own data to an organisation where they're immersed in every single outcome-based discussion, and surrounded by numbers and technology," said Agrippa.
Agrippa believes that "Jeremy's ambition is more than achievable" before 2018.
"He talks about having people access their health records, and clinical staff being able to access their information at the click of a button. But at the moment, our staff are already able to do that. I wouldn't say it's 10 out of 10 right now, but we're 8.5. And 8.5 in 18 months is pretty impressive in my view."
Agrippa believes that a "hampering factor" in making NHS computing more widespread, standardised and, crucially, networked nationally, is the requirement of "a lot more clarity in terms of what organisations need to do, but also liaising with [others] to make sure the systems they have in place lend themselves to the connectivity that has to happen."
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