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NHS contracts for document storage, digitisation three years after paperless deadline

£200m tender is latest step in never-ending journey toward a paperless utopia

The NHS has awarded 17 suppliers a seat on a public sector framework worth up to £200m for paper document storage and digitisation, three years after it missed a self-imposed deadline of going paperless.

According to a contract award notice published today, NHS Shared Business Services – a joint venture between the health service and integrator Sopra Steria – established the framework, in which it will tender contracts for records management, scanning and digitisation, and electronic document records management systems.

Under the same procurement vehicle, a partnership between Bath and North East Somerset, Swindon and Wiltshire trusts is looking for an entire portfolio of records management to "support the national move towards digital records management and the reduction of paper files the contract is constructed to, where appropriate to do so, combine physical records management and future scanning requirements".

Also, within the scope of the £200m framework is the less-than-digital activity of human tissue storage.

Suppliers with a place on the framework, meaning they can bid for project work as it lands, include Civica UK, Conduent Business Process Solutions, Cleardata UK and Hyland Software UK.

Observers might be surprised that the health service is still contracting for the storage and digitisation of paper documents three years after the deadline to go 100 per cent paperless passed. The 2018 target was first set by then-health secretary Jeremy Hunt back in 2013.

It was reiterated in 2016, when the newly formed NHS Digital published a "paperless roadmap" describing how it was going to get there.

In early 2016, Jeremy Hunt set aside more than £4 billion for digital and technology projects in the NHS, including £1.8 billion to meet the "paperless at the point of care" target, which had been postponed to 2020 following a report by Professor Robert Wachter and the National Advisory Group on Health Information Technology.

The new contract award is a sign that in their journey towards a paperless NHS, the driving forces of the initiative are hearing wails of complaint from the backseat along the lines of “are we nearly there yet?”

A Kings Fund paper published in 2016 offers a few clues as to why.

It said the agenda has been subject to a confusing array of announcements, initiatives and plans. "Shifting priorities and slipping timescales pose a risk to credibility and commitment on the ground," it said, before going on:

Progress in this area requires much more focus on engaging and upskilling the people (at all levels in the NHS) who are expected to use it. The importance of engaging clinicians, in particular, and conveying the benefits associated with digitisation should not be underestimated.

It also called for "clarification about when funding already announced will be available and how this can be accessed".

The report from the NHS research body also pointed out that Hunt's target was preceded by plans under the ill-fated National Programme for IT, which dates back to 2002 and "failed to achieve its main objectives, including establishing an integrated electronic health record system across secondary care – although it did establish some important national digital infrastructure and services".

The availability of the £200m framework shows the plans for digitising health records are still ongoing, even though the eventual destination might still be some way over the horizon. ®

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