It was hard to hear UK health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s recent backtracking over his plans for a paperless NHS by 2018, without wondering to what extent digital health documents have contributed to global forest depletion over the last decades.
To some extent all tech programmes in the NHS are still overshadowed by the disastrous electronic patient records project under the canned £11bn National Programme for IT in 2011.
But two more recently scrapped projects were the NHS's security-flawed Apps Library, which was finally shelved following widespread criticism of the site and the plans to anonymise patient information via the Care.data.
Former chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge, has also expressed doubts over the further £4.2bn promised to "bring the NHS into the digital age”.
A report by the University of Glasgow today has highlighted some of the continuing barriers and facilitators to implementing a digital health programme.
The study, which was conducted in collaboration with researchers from the University of Strathclyde and Newcastle University, evaluated the £37m digital health programme "Delivering Assisted Living Lifestyles at Scale" between 2012 and 2015.
Factors hindering implementation included a lack of IT infrastructure (including universal broadband); uncertainty around information governance; and trust in the security of digital health platforms.
But it also reckons some of those problems are not insurmountable.
The study lead, Professor Frances Mair, professor of primary care research from the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences, recommended investment in digital healthcare at a national and local level, support for the digitally excluded, training the next generation and upgrading the technical capabilities of the health service.
Mair said there are opportunities for improving the quality and accessibility of care and better supporting healthcare professionals. However, she cautioned against seeing digital health as a fix for the problems of the NHS.
“I think digital health is here to stay; it is not going to go away. But we need to invest judiciously and invest in the ability to advance digital health that is worthwhile.
“It is not a panacea and isn’t going to keep people out of hospitals. There’s also no evidence that it is suddenly going cut costs dramatically.”
An example of a more intelligent use of self-serve technology might be diabetic patients saving the time they would have spent going to the doctor by measuring their own blood levels, and sending the information to their doctor via a secure app.
She also said there are some real issue of having an entirely paperless setup, for example if the system were to go down or were to be subjected to cyber attacks.
“I think there huge advantages to electronic systems for efficiencies, as people don’t have to keep repeating information.
"But there are real issues if those systems brought down. So you could say there is a place for some kind of skeleton paper back-up system. But then there are the costs of running two systems.”
Perhaps if the government took less of a "technology for the sake of it" approach to NHS digitisation policy, we might stand a chance of improving services. ®