Senior Product Manager, ABBYY


Digitising the NHS: why we must act quickly

Britain is taking big strides in digital reforms, yet the NHS is falling behind. Why?

The delayed launch of and slow adoption by doctors and medical practitioners signify a constant struggle that continues to burden any possible sight of a digital NHS. This October saw the first anniversary of the NHS Five Year Forward View, which provided recommendations to create a better care service. The intention is simple: it’s a pledge to empower patients.

At the core, however, is an urgent call to fast track a new era of digital healthcare. As it turns out, there is a whole lot more work than simply creating a ‘paperless NHS’. Digital technology will guarantee a safer and more reliable NHS for our future. It will transform the way patient care is delivered. It will decide how records are managed, and it will provide the means for the NHS to become better partners with voluntary organisations and create more choice for patients. It will also open doors for GPs and hospital staff to actively contribute to innovative drug trials and clinical research projects, leading the way for the UK to drive the next generation of pharmaceutical research.

Create a transparent and cohesive approach

The lack of a cohesive, integrated system might be one of the major obstacles on the NHS’ path to innovative patient services. To this day, patient records are still stored in silo databases and filing cabinets. Many GPs and hospitals are still plagued by the thousands of medical reports, lab results, letters and other documents on site trapped in paper form, none of which are easily accessible. The use of modern scanners or digital cameras, combined with recognition technologies and automated data collection, will enable health service providers to pioneer new processes for electronic patient data management systems.

Text and barcode recognition technologies, document conversion and intelligent extraction of data from paper documents provide a quick and easy way for staff to efficiently and reliably digitise documents and access the information contained in those. Hospital staff can also classify and transfer information to the corresponding module of a Hospital Information System (HIS) for processing. The result is an effective, cost-saving and transparent information management system. With secured password protection, it can become available for authorised personnel to access any time, from anywhere.

Provide great interaction and choice for patients

With a more unified information system, patients will have the option to access their own health records and choose their own self-care services. As the NHS becomes more integrated with GPs and hospitals across the nation, it will open up opportunities to build partnerships with local communities, specialist units and volunteer organisations. In turn, patients will have a wider choice on the type of services and care they wish to receive, at a time and place that is convenient for them.

Convenience is a currency that many take for granted. That may just be one of the reasons why has once again failed to launch. The lack of education around user benefits has opened up criticism for the project and its subsequent low adoption rate. The ability to input patient progress and medical treatment into a centralised information system is essential for the foundation of better healthcare in this country. It enables management teams to review and devise new ways to improve care for patients – and in near real time, too.

With new innovations and a more transparent data sharing system, patients can also take advantage of mobile technology for greater interaction with healthcare professionals and clinical research teams. For example, they can photograph the documents with a mobile phone and send it to their GP. Already, some healthcare providers are offering video consultation and diagnosis online.  

And there is more. Mobile document capture solutions can be integrated into existing IT applications in a GP or hospital. So all imaging documents (x-rays, photos of injuries taken by emergency services, etc.) can be captured and stored on the patient record alongside textual medical notes for a more comprehensive assessment and faster decision on treatment options.

Fast track medical research and clinical trials

Medical researchers, GPs and hospitals are already working with selective drug companies in drug trials and research projects. As the Forward View has outlined, there are plans to ramp up the investment in this field to create new ‘test beds’ and ‘green fields’ for greater innovations. Data from regular patient surveys and university hospitals studies are typically collected on paper that is then evaluated manually afterwards. This can be time intensive and prone to human errors.

Automated data processing technology, however, provides the ability to teach the computer to ‘read’ handwritten text and completed checkboxes extracted from scanned documents. It will then populate the information to the correct fields within a database for researchers to conduct statistics and further analysis. GPs and hospital staff can also use the same technology to manage prescriptions and speed up the time for documents to be manually processed. The automated data validation adds an extra layer of security to ensure the correct prescription is given to the patient, further reducing the risk of human errors.

Patient care is changing, and so should the NHS

Patients’ needs are changing and new treatment options are emerging. Faced with a growing and ageing population, the answer to delivering better care is by empowering patients. In other words, give them greater control of their own care and treatment options, at a time and place that suits individual needs. The shift to focus on prevention rather than cure will transform the future of our NHS.

Technology is already giving us more capability to predict, diagnose and treat disease. It will improve the ability for healthcare professionals to undertake research and apply innovation. It will create an opportunity for the nation – both practitioners and patients – to redesign our NHS services from scratch. The next stage is to find better ways of organising care. Closing the gap between hospitals and primary care, between health and social care, between generalists and specialists might be the first step into this direction. The result would be the creation of an integrated health service that is genuinely coordinated around what people need and want.


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