The move forms part of the Department of Health's (DoH) drive away from paper-based systems. The Department announced that it has set aside £260 million to fund new systems that will allow for patients' digital medical records to be accessed across the NHS, whilst the money is also to be used to end paper-based prescriptions.
"The fund will be used by hospitals to replace outdated paper based systems for patient notes and prescriptions, and is a critical stepping-stone in helping the NHS go digital by 2018," the DoH said in a statement. "It will be primarily used for ‘electronic prescribing’ - which means computer generated prescriptions sent by doctors directly to pharmacies, linked to barcodes unique to each patient. This kind of technology plays a huge part in cutting errors and improving safety."
Earlier this year Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he wanted the NHS to become "paperless" by 2018, in a move he said could reduce costs and improve services. He said health providers should have access to a single digital medical record for each patient. Hunt's comments came after accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) reported that up to £4.4 billion of savings could be made in the NHS if information and technology were better utilised.
The proposals drew criticism from privacy campaigners, but Hunt insisted that there would be "protocols" put in place to ensure that patient records were only accessed "when necessary" and with individuals' permission.
The DoH has now said that there would be benefits to patients in moving away from paper-based prescriptions and records management.
"Last year at least 11 people died in the NHS because they were given the wrong prescriptions," the Department said. "This fund will be used to increase the use of technology which will help stop drugs being prescribed incorrectly because patients’ notes have been lost. Errors in prescriptions are present in as many as 8% of hospital prescriptions and studies have shown that the use of technology can cut these errors by half."
"The fund will help protect patients by ensuring that doctors and nurses are able to access accurate details about the care of a patient. And it will make a patient’s journey through different parts of the NHS much safer, because their records can follow them electronically wherever they go," it added.
Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, medical director of NHS England, added: "This new fund will help patients get better and safer care by giving clinicians access to the right information when they need it most."
"Supporting hospitals to replace outdated paper systems for notes and prescriptions will help relieve patients’ frustration at having to repeat their medical and medication history over and over again, often in the same hospital, because their records aren’t available," he said.
Nick Pickles, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, previously called on the DoH to make it "absolutely clear" who would store patient records in the planned new paperless system, as well as who would have rights of access to the data. He also said that it was important to have an "audit trail" that would reveal to patients who had viewed their medical records.
In April the Information Commissioner's Office revealed that it had heard concerns from GPs about a new information-sharing initiative that has begun operating in the health sector in England. The Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) has the power to require health bodies to hand over "any information" that it deems "necessary or expedient" in order to fulfil its functions. HSCIC is tasked with gathering and publishing data in order to improve the quality of information available across the health sector.
The ICO said that doctors had expressed concern about whether patients were being kept sufficiently informed as to how their data could be passed on to HSCIC via third-party companies.
A recent report by Dame Fiona Caldicott, commissioned by the Government, recommended that unlawful data processing and sharing should be treated as being a 'data breach' and be reported openly by both NHS and non-NHS bodies in the health and social care sectors.
A 'data breach' should be defined as "any failure to meet the requirements of the Data Protection Act", she said. "This includes unlawful disclosure or misuse of confidential data, recording or sharing of inaccurate data and inappropriate invasion of people’s privacy."
Dame Fiona said that there is a "culture of anxiety" that exists within the health and social care sectors and that therefore personal information is not shared as readily between professionals as it could be. She said "safe and appropriate sharing in the interests of the individual’s direct care should be the rule, not the exception".