Jeremy Laurance: A disastrous attempt to drag the NHS into 21st century

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The plan to computerise NHS patients records has been an unmitigated disaster. The £12bn programme is four years overdue and there are questions over whether the data is safe and the project can still deliver benefits.

On the face of it, replacing rooms full of dog-eared, yellowing paper records with gleaming computer disks, backed up so the data can never be lost in a fire or flood, looks like a necessary part of dragging the NHS into the 21st century.

Doing it has proved much harder. In particular, patients are worried about the confidentiality of the new system. Every patient will have a summary record, containing key medical facts and problems (eg allergies to penicillin) which will be available to doctors, nurses and ambulance staff anywhere in the UK when the patient consults them. If you live in Southampton and are involved in a car accident in Edinburgh, the doctors tending to you will know what to do and what to avoid.

Detailed medical records will be kept by GPs as before and sensitive information (such as sexually transmitted infections, a history of mental illness) can be kept in a "sealed envelope" so it is not accessible to those beyond the practice.

The question is: can you count on confidential information being kept that way? Public confidence in the computer system is already low. Stories of computer disks being casually lost by GPs will not increase it. As well as technical measures to ensure confidentiality, a charm offensive is needed to persuade the public that modern computer systems are indispensable.

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