Comment: Live long and prosper: how digital data can transform the NHS

By Eva Weber, senior manager at ABBYY

The NHS celebrates its 70th birthday this year and, if we’re serious about providing a long-term solution to developing a health service that’s fit for the next 70 years, then automated digital technologies must be a key part of the solution, argues Eva Weber, senior manager at ABBYY

During the NHS winter crisis when doctors and nurses are busy caring for patients and ambulances queueing at hospital gates; it seems almost frivolous to be talking about documentation.

It’s a fairly-safe bet that doctors and nurses on the wards tonight won’t be thinking about the ‘paperless NHS’, digital health plans, and documentation conversion. Rather, they’ll be occupied with much-more-pressing questions of life and death.

No-one would deny that accurate, comprehensive and up-to-date documentation is an important factor in health outcomes, but less often do we consider the wider strategic importance of document and data management to the NHS.

The fact is that information management is an absolutely-critical factor in the future of healthcare provision services, not only in the UK, but around the world.

Putting data at the heart of the NHS

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the NHS. This is longer than the average life expectancy of 66 years for UK men when the service was launched in 1948.

Today, men can expect to live to 77 and women to over 80 years old. This not only highlights the overall success of the health service, but also explains the enormous challenges of an ageing population that is putting such a strain on the NHS today.

No-one would deny that accurate, comprehensive and up-to-date documentation is an important factor in health outcomes, but less often do we consider the wider strategic importance of document and data management to the NHS

With GP services and hospitals overstretched – during the winter time often almost to breaking point – the NHS is exploring new, more-efficient ways of delivering care and clinical advice.

Data and documentation is a central part of its ambition of delivering innovative new services, including digital technologies such as personal mHealth applications or implementation of big data and the latest analytics technologies.

Most recently, the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies is being explored to automate processes and help doctors and nurses make more-informed decisions.

The challenge for the NHS, and other healthcare providers around the world, is that as care delivery becomes more complex, and in many cases distributed among several providers, they must somehow streamline an enormous amount of paper-based business processes. One obvious example is through the introduction of electronic health records.

Healthcare providers have to manage enormous volumes of traditional documentation such as clinical examination forms, patient surveys, prescriptions, and many more. All this is further complicated by complex web of different healthcare providers, each using different documentation standards and formats, and the range of disparate silos and legacy systems in which this documentation resides. This includes large volumes of paper documents, locked away in filing cabinets or cluttering up desks.

The initial tasks of digitising and centralising paper documentation proved difficult enough. However, healthcare providers such as the NHS now have to contend with a huge rise in the number of technologies, such as personal health apps, the use of which is continuously growing.

e-Imperative for health documentation

Without effective document digitisation, the NHS has no hope of achieving the full benefits of new technologies, nor will it be able to harness the immense value of the data contained within them.

Added to this, organisations that continue to rely on manual, paper-based documentation will waste many hundreds of thousands of hours on inefficient processes such as archiving, data extraction, or merely searching for the right information.

The importance of digitising healthcare processes is well known; once they are in place, systems such as hospital information management systems (HIMS) and patient data management software soon prove their worth to clinicians and administrators alike. What is less appreciated is the role that text recognition and capture, such as optical character recognition (OCR) and associated technologies, has to play.

Eva Weber

With the help of high-quality text recognition, all doctor’s letters and agreements with health insurers can be digitised and electronically archived as searchable PDF files.

Data from specific fields on medical documents can be automatically extracted and forwarded to HIMS and other systems for integration into patient’s medical records. Medical reports, laboratory test results and other relevant correspondence can then be linked to the patient’s electronic health record (EHRs) and easily accessed at any time.

Paper-based medical surveys, prescriptions and patient reports can be easily and quickly processed with the data immediately made available to care providers. For example, by scanning medical prescriptions, printed information can be extracted by OCR and imported into software and applications for pharmacies where it can be validated against existing databases or stock systems and even be used to direct picking robots. This way, prescriptions can be validated automatically to ensure future reimbursement by health insurance providers.

Going digital will also speed up the time it takes to process medical research projects.

Feedback from patient surveys can be scanned in with information automatically extracted. This will allow researchers to analyse the data quickly and share the results immediately with care providers and pharmaceutical companies.

These technologies are already delivering tremendous benefits to healthcare providers and the wider eco system of partners such as pharmacies and drug companies.

Helping organisations to slash the time they spend on paper records management, automating data extraction, minimising the time it takes to process thousands of documents, and creating searchable databases with negligible impact on staff time will have one important effect – more time for the daily patient care.

Helping organisations to slash the time they spend on paper records management will have one important effect – more time for the daily patient care

If these benefits were merely theoretical, it would be difficult to convince hard-pressed administrative staff and budget decision-makers of their efficacy. As it is, their successful deployment in many situations around the world provides compelling evidence of how they can help to transform patient care, improve efficiency throughout the whole NHS, and deliver return on investment.

Admittedly, document management and data capture won’t win headlines in the middle of winter. If we are serious about providing a long-term solution to the problems the NHS faces, and developing a health service that’s fit for the next 70 years, then technologies such as these must be a major part of the solution.