The slow pace of progress in digitizing patient records

As the price of DNA sequencing has plummeted and wearable and mobile technologies have mushroomed in size, it’s easy to think that we live in a world of abundance when it comes to patient data, and to an extent you’re right to think that.

In many ways however, it’s a two speed journey, as there are still many aspects of the healthcare system that are operating in a very analog way.

A recent study from the University of York revealed the slow pace of digitization of patient records in the National Health Service.

Pace of change

The analysis, which is believed to be the first of its kind, examines the progress made in transferring patient records to digital, and shows a complex picture best by poor understanding of IT implementation and an underestimation on the kind of changes digitization would bring.  If nothing else, the review reminds us of the complexities inherent in implementing health technology.

“It is difficult for those outside of the NHS system to visualise the scale of this project; there are hundreds of departments and healthcare organisations, using different IT systems, trying to share important information about a patient,” the researchers say.

“One way of understanding the complexity, is if we imagine inviting a number of friends to an event using one system, a text message for example, only for them to post their answers back on several different portals, Facebook, voicemail, and so on; this would become a difficult communications exercise.”

Then throw in the possibility that you won’t have one of those portals or you might not have the appropriate permissions to share your response, and it’s easy to see how complexity builds up, especially once things begin to scale.

Inside the belly

The researchers went deep inside numerous attempts at digital transformation, reviewing policy documents to try and gauge just what progress has been made, and indeed whether there were common mistakes holding back a number of projects.

One notable success was the introduction of NHS Spine, which is designed to be an IT backbone that supports electronic patient records, but since digitization first began in 1992, there have been rather more attempts that have failed than succeeded.

Sadly, whilst the review provided a few possible suggestions as to why such prolonged failures have occurred, it concluded with the frustrating recommendation that more analysis is required, as there is little real understanding or evidence of the best approach to take.

What does appear clear however is that the kind of implementation skills required to make such projects work are in short supply.  The perfect combination of IT, health, policy and change management expertise is rarely found in one individual, or even a team, and it’s perhaps this lack of capability that is the biggest hurdle to overcome.


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