In 2013, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt claimed that a paperless NHS - promised by 2020 - would ‘save £4.4 billion.’ As these estimates always are, the figure has been discussed, disputed, criticized, and lauded. Hunt admitted in June that it was ‘one of the more bold’ pledges he’d made since taking over the role, but it stands as an example of both the potentially revolutionary effect of digitization and the hyperbolic speculation that all too often comes with it.
As the NHS struggles under aggressive cuts, resultant strikes and disputes, an aging population, and other challenges, digitization offers potential salvation. The reaction to the deepening financial crisis has always been to look for inefficiencies and improve the area. It’s unsurprising, then, that digital is at the heart of policy discussion, given its ability to streamline processes and improve efficiency largely without putting extra strain on already stretched staff.
The paperless NHS is just the beginning, though it is set to take far longer than Hunt initially purported - a Wachter review on the NHS describes the 2020 target as ‘unrealistic’, urging it to be revised to 2023. Regardless, the accepted consensus is that a paperless NHS would be an improvement for both patients and staff, would smooth supply chain issues, and would reduce identification errors. According to the Guardian, ‘NHS England estimates that the annual cost of storing paper records at between £500,000 and £1 million for each trust.’
But digital can run deeper even than this. A digital NHS would be a data-driven NHS; a health service desperately in need of greater connectedness and flexibility could undergo a similar . ‘One of the biggest benefits of moving to a paperless NHS is being able to share data – not only between professionals in different settings and services but also between professionals and patients,’ said Sophie Castle-Clarke of the Nuffield Trust health thinktank. ‘This means patients will enjoy more joined-up care across the system – so that their hospital consultant, GP and community nurse all have access to their medical history.’
Of all the responses to the long-term digitization of the NHS, the most fervently critical are born out of a fear of reduced interaction with doctors or widespread automation. This really isn’t the point of digitization, though; it’s about freeing up staff time whilst improving patient care. Streamlined processes and multiple options for interaction with the service are boons for both the service’s finances and the patients’ time. ‘We are not talking about GP appointments moving online, it’s about realigning services to make them cheaper, better and faster. That’s better for patients, for taxpayers and everyone working in the NHS,’ said Helen Rowntree, Head of Digital Services at NHS England.
The Huffington Post has rightfully asked the question of whether the inherent bureaucracy and risk-aversion at such a large and important institution could be a pitfall for its digital transformation. Dr. Neil Bacon, Founder and Chief Executive of iWantGreatCare, writes in the Huffington Post: ‘To truly succeed, real-time patient feedback should be the bedrock of Hunt’s new digital NHS. It will provide meaningful feedback both to users and providers, enhancing patient choice and providing an early warning system for providers.’ Indeed, for any new system in such a customer/patient-centric industry, feedback is essential in honing the service. If the NHS is to implement digital strategy risk-free, it’ll need to listen to its patients to improve the service as it goes - initial radical change isn’t welcome.
Digital transformation in the NHS is also about freeing up staff time alongside improving patient care. The Telegraph highlight the breathalyzer that can detect early signs of lung cancer (in under a minute) as an example of technology that could speed up processes and improve accuracy. It also looks at ‘an app which allows commuters to find the least polluted route to work, and changes in clinical research which mean drug trials have been able to start six times as quickly.’ Both preventative technology and patient care can be made more efficient and effective by digital products.
GPs have embraced digital, and some 12 exemplary trusts have benefited from the move to digital already. The NHS’ shift will take time, so much so that by the time a paperless system is realistically achieved, those on the left will be hoping Jeremy Hunt’s no longer in government at all. The NHS is in dire need of a revamp, though, and, if the effect of digital transformation can be as positive as it has been on business and other government sectors, it could just prove the institution's savior.