THE BLOG

The NHS Could Give Every Patient Access to Their Health Records - Why Doesn't It?

29/01/2014 10:24 GMT | Updated 30/03/2014 10:59 BST

Reports that the NHS is planning to sell patient information to outside organisations at a commercial price raises a simple question: Why aren't hospitals giving patients their own for free?

They could. The technology exists in most wards to give everyone access to their records, and more besides, electronically. But most managers choose not to make it possible.

The NHS is a remarkable organisation and deserves superlatives for much of what it does. But a weakness remains making the most of technology, both to save time for staff and improve life for their patients.

In this instance, that weakness is clashing with a legitimate public expectation, which is encouraged by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, that people should see what clinicians write, both as a matter of democratic decency and to help them keep on top of their condition or treatment.

Nearly everyone who goes into hospital now has access to television service by their bed - whether from a standard TV set or some other technology. What they may not know is that it can do a lot more than make sure they don't miss an episode of Game of Thrones.

On a long list of benefits, the systems when fully used save nurses up to 25 per cent of their time, freeing them for tasks that often get side-lined, such as talking to patients.

Crucially, the technology can also give patients access to medical notes, latest x-rays or scans, dietary advice and general guidance about their condition. The entertainment element is just one part, not the whole it has become.

The current under usage of the software is like owning a smartphone, but only using it to check the time.

A suspicion remains that the main reason why patients still rarely see their notes is cultural. Many hospital staff still think too much access will raise too many awkward questions.

Publicly, the argument often put forward is that it might even be dangerous if patients could see what was written because doctors and nurses would start to sanitise their language, fearing legal repercussions, which could in turn jeopardise treatment.

This is a false concern. Bedside systems have filters which would allow clinicians access to information for their eyes only. There is no need for them to fear writing down frank observations for the benefit of colleagues; for example, that a patient has a 'fabricated illness" or is "unbelievably rude". The information can simply be blocked out, which NHS information technology managers know.

The public sector has often had an unhappy relationship with computer software, as a litany of stories about overspending and underdelivery testifies. So it is almost unsettling when the NHS can cheerfully announce a globally unprecedented gathering of patient data, literally a map of the nation's health which may have huge potential for medical research, and yet still be inconvenienced when it comes to giving something far simpler to patients.

It is true that there is hardly a clamour for access to records. But there was no clamour for smartphones until they were invented and made available. It is also true that not every patient will want the access, but plenty will. An entire generation has now grown up utterly familiar and comfortable with what technology can offer. Why should they be denied it from the nation's health care provider, especially when others are being allowed to buy it? Jeremy Hunt wrote recently that better data means better care. Better access to data means the same.

The news that patient data will shortly be made available, for business and research organisations that can pay for it, shows that it is all a matter of will.

It would be a relatively simple job to give every patient access to the same sort of information electronically that the NHS is planning to sell, probably in the same way, especially as it is theirs in the first place.