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NHS: Medical Records

Volume 730: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2011

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to continue to computerise all NHS medical records.

My Lords, the Government aim to continue to computerise NHS medical records so that patient experience is enhanced, patient care is made more efficient, and patient safety is improved. However, we recognise the weakness of top-down, centrally imposed IT systems. Although elements of the programme have been successful, the policy approach taken has failed to engage the NHS sufficiently. The findings of recent reviews will contribute to planning currently under way for future informatics support to the modernised NHS.

Is my noble friend aware that the current programme for the NHS database has cost over £6.2 billion, has taken 10 years and is currently totally unworkable? Is he aware of any other country in the world that has attempted such a project and succeeded? As far as I can see, no other country has even attempted it. Would it not be far better if Her Majesty’s Government bit the bullet and scrapped the whole scheme, as they did with the RAF’s Nimrod programme, which was itself a brave decision?

My Lords, I can well understand my noble friend’s acute disquiet over this matter, particularly in light of the recent report from the Public Accounts Committee. The view we have taken is that some very good things have been achieved so far, particularly from the national elements of the programme, but it is equally clear that the top-down policy approach taken to the computerisation of the NHS has not delivered the benefits at local level that everybody was hoping for and has failed to engage the NHS sufficiently. Those are the things we are now concentrating on: making sure that the governance of the programme is sound; learning lessons from what has happened; and achieving value for money.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the former Minister responsible for this programme—one does have to own up to one’s past from time to time. Could the Minister assure the House that the Government are fully committed to the idea of an electronic patient record system as the way forward for the NHS, given its benefits for patient care, research and NHS efficiency? Could he tell the House what proportion of the population has now been able to avail itself of an electronic summary record?

I pay tribute to the work that the noble Lord did when he was a Minister. Yes, the Government are committed to a summary care record, which, for the benefit of noble Lords, is a record that includes a defined set of key patient data, other than for patients who choose to opt out—that is an important rider. Clinicians can then access essential medical information that they need to support safe treatment and to reduce the risk of inadvertent harm, especially during emergency care. To answer the second question that the noble Lord asked, over six million patients now have a summary care record, which is a considerable increase over a few months ago.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that to improve the quality of healthcare we would need comparable indicators of health outcomes? In the absence of nationally collected computerised data, how would we achieve this?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. We have to measure performance in order to improve upon it. That is why we are focused on producing an information strategy, which we hope to publish later this year. A lot of work has already gone on and the NHS Future Forum, as he may know, is looking at this area. He is absolutely right that this will be central to the performance management of the NHS.

My Lords, we are now well into the 21st century. Can the Minister give us some indication as to when patients might be able to access their own records online?

This is a commitment that we have made. We fully support the concept of patients having full access to their medical records online. A great deal of work is going on at the moment to make sure that the protocols are sound, because clearly the one thing one does not want is for the wrong people to access the wrong patient data. If we can achieve that and do it in a simple way, we shall roll the programme out as soon as we can.

I take on board what the noble Earl says about engaging local commitment and the failure that there has been in that so far, but does he agree that one of the most important things about local commitment is that different localities may have different systems? As far as the patient is concerned, it is absolutely essential that the systems can talk to each other. How will that be ensured if we go down the local route?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point. I said that the top-down approach to local service provision has not worked when it has come to local service provider systems. We think that local requirements are best judged and best met by decisions being taken locally but that does not mean that they will be left on their own. There will be the necessary support from the centre wherever needed. She is again right that the key will be that these local systems must be interoperable.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while technology is incredibly beneficial to the National Health Service, we must be wary of people working within the health service depending too much upon technology and ignoring the human aspects of care for people who are in hospital—talking to patients, touching them and holding their hands when they have problems? My recent experiences in hospital have been very unpleasant because people have relied entirely on technology and not listened to what I have had to say.

The noble Countess is of course correct that good patient care is about humane and sensitive treatment by the staff who serve in the National Health Service. At the same time, I think we are all clear that technology has a role to play in enhancing patient safety and improving the quality of care that the good staff of the NHS can deliver.

My Lords, can I entice the Minister into being slightly more definite about when the House might see the new IT strategy which the Government keep telling us that they are about to publish? As a former Minister, I know that the answer “soon” is one that the House always looks at with some wry smiles. If we could have a more definite date, that might be helpful.

My Lords, we plan to make an announcement towards the latter part of the autumn about the way forward for informatics, which will mean—we are clear about this—that we continue to gain more value for money from taxpayers’ investment and ensure that informatics support is fit for purpose in the modern NHS.