Published: 11 February 2013

In this recent report by the Department of Health, ‘Jeremy Hunt challenges NHS to go paperless by 2018’, the secretary of state for health says that patients should be able to access their GP records by 2015.1 I was delighted to hear this news as it is a topic that is close to the heart of the RCP’s Health Informatics Unit. At some point, all of us are patients and being able to view and contribute to our health records is something that many of us have wanted for a long time. There are those who feel that medical records have always and should continue to belong to healthcare professionals, but is this short sighted?

The Guardian reported on 18 December 2012 the dangers of a ‘health service designed for practitioners, not patients’.2 The article describes how a 59-year-old woman with vascular dementia and epilepsy nearly missed out on essential medication after being discharged from hospital. This woman lived alone, but had daily carer support. Her carer came to collect the new medications, but the pharmacist was unaware of the changes due to miscommunication between the hospital, GP surgery and the pharmacy. The hospital faxed a discharge summary the next day, although it did not detail the medication changes. As it was close to the weekend and the surgery would be closed, the woman nearly had to be readmitted to hospital. This sort of scenario is all too common. Shared health records will make the NHS safer and more efficient as well as satisfying patient’s wishes.  

There are, of course, some patients who will be unable or uninterested in contributing to the management of their healthcare and those with chronic diseases are the likeliest to make the most of the opportunity. There are so many benefits: more informed patients, instant access to medical results, management of healthcare when abroad, easy sharing of information with family members, and patients contributing to their own health records.

However, GP records are only one piece of the challenge. Patients must be able to access all of their health records. This is not an easy task for hospital electronic records, where the logistics are often more complicated; many different departments have different IT systems, and data may be held in both structured and free text forms, and so on. Also, patients with multiple long-term conditions may be looked after by multiple teams. Making the information clear and understandable could present a challenge.   

We welcome the government’s commitment to ensuring patient access to their GP records and support the goal of going further.


References

1. www.dh.gov.uk/health/2013/01/paperless/

2. www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/dec/18/better-access-patient-records-nhs-safer

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