IT: Office Saviour

10 May, 2004 | BusinessTdpComputers

It was immense joy I read this article about the National Health Service (NHS) employing IT in an application for which it was intended. I know this may come as a shock to some people, but IT is actually designed to help people achieve results more efficiently. A key role to increasing efficiency is easy data access and retrieval. This is exactly what the NHS is now starting to implement, beginning with Picture Archiving and Communications Systems (PACS) for X-ray scans. It will enable anyone in the medical cycle instant access to data, which could be vital in diagnosis. If the GP wants to consult with a surgeon, he can either email the document to them, or they can access it through the system. They can discuss the scan while both looking at it, yet without travelling to be in the same place. They both know what they're talking about because they're both looking at an identical image. And they can pick up a phone and have a conversation about it, enabling a concise diagnosis with no room for interpretation. I don't know how the system works at the moment to be honest, but I imagine if you want someone to look at the scan it must be physically sent to them, they look at it, diagnose the problem, write some notes about it and send it back. These notes must then be interpreted and a decision made. Imagine the time involved! This has to happen between departments in the same hospital too.

Now imagine the tracking, filing and archiving of these documents. In a system with a potential 60 million people (i.e. the entire UK population) that is an enormous number of documents, spread across a vast geographical area. I work in a sector that handles, tracks and stores a fairly large number of physical documents, and we lose track of them. The number of documents we handle probably ranks in the tens of thousands, maybe the hundreds of thousands. Over time we will probably accumulate the millions the NHS has, but they will not be accessed as randomly, as frequently, by as many people or over such a large area as the NHS archives must be. I state this because I know we lose track of documents, and the NHS are dealing with a far larger number of people, establishments and locations than we are. We still handle everything hard copy, but we are now also storing many items electronically. For archive this makes sense – a CD takes up considerably less size than the number of documents that can be stored on it, a DVD even more so – but it also means that anyone can get at it without having to physically visit a central library. It means you can email it to anyone, anywhere in the world, should you need to, it means you can produce exact duplicates quickly. This is what the NHS needs to do to ensure productivity, surely?

Thinking about it, I think it's stunning, dangerous but ultimately amazing that all of a patient's records aren't available electronically already. I say this because a doctor or surgeon acting without full knowledge of a patient's history and records is like a fighter boxing with one arm tied behind their back or a race car driver racing by the view he sees in his mirrors alone. It makes the amazing work doctors and nurses do even more amazing. If a patient walks into a hospital in Liverpool, but is from Bournemouth, the doctor is not working efficiently if he cannot look at their records. In serious cases he may have to talk to their own doctor, possibly even request their records. That takes valuable time, time that patient may not have. Add to this the financial cost of constantly moving these files around the country, the space that needs to be dedicated to their storage and the personnel necessary to keep the system running and IT really does offer itself as a saviour.