The UK health secretary Jeremy Hunt has called for the health service to put all patient medical records online by 2018 and move towards becoming a "paperless NHS".
Digitising records would mean patients' medical details could be shared instantly between health and social services and would enable GPs to make patient referrals by email instead of having to send a letter.
Hunt encouraged the NHS to adopt paperless records in a speech on Wednesday evening to Tory think tank Policy Exchange. "I want it to become paperless by 2018," he said. "The most modern digital health service in the world.
"Between the NHS and social care, there must be total commitment to ensuring that interaction is paperless, and that, with a patient's consent, their full medical history can follow them around the system seamlessly."
However, Hunt's vision of a paperless NHS is not likely to be achieved within five years, according to analysts.
"The English NHS will not be paperless by 2018," senior analyst at EHI Intelligence, SA Mathieson, told ZDNet. "It is made up of several hundred organisations with greatly differing IT capabilities, as well as thousands of independent GPs."
The UK doctors' union, the British Medical Association (BMA), says there are several challenges to be overcome in order to make the NHS paperless and is sceptical about the extent of the benefits it can offer.
"Although there may potentially be some efficiency savings, technology will not necessarily create huge cost savings" — BMA
"The biggest challenges to making the NHS paperless by 2018 are down to funding, resources, prioritisation and the choice of systems in secondary care," a BMA spokeswoman told ZDNet. "Although there may potentially be some efficiency savings, technology will not necessarily create huge cost savings. As well as ongoing hardware and software funding, sufficient resources will be required to support evolving training, IT support and admin support."
Proposals for electronic patient care records will doubtless call to mind previous attempts to digitise patient records across the health service under the National Programme for IT (NPfIT). A project to introduce a single patient records system in hospitals using CSC's Lorenzo software ended up going over budget and running years late.
CSC later had to write off $1bn on the value of its NHS contract. Under the NPfIT, the NHS also began creating Summary Care Records (SCRs), which stored key patient information, such as allergies and current prescriptions, on a central database, unless patients decided to opt out. The creation of SCRs was put on hold by the coalition government in April 2010, but was given the green light again a year later. At the time of its revival, 5.7 million SCRs had been created across England and 30.3 million patients had been contacted about the scheme.