Healthcare in the UK could be revolutionised by letting patients view their medical records online, according to senior NHS insiders.
Giving patients access to electronic records will play a vital role in helping the public look after their health and meet future demands on the NHS, a roundtable discussion hosted by IT services provider Simpl heard on Wednesday.
Ian Herbert, vice chairman of the health informatics advisory panel for the British Computer Society and former consultant on the government's £12.7bn IT revamp, said: "Patient involvement is essential if we are going to be able to fund the kind of healthcare we want.
"It's good for the patient too because in many cases we cannot afford to treat the consequences of poor lifestyle."
Providing online access to health records would be a major shift for the UK. Most NHS patients can currently only access a limited amount of healthcare information online using the NHS website HealthSpace, such as blood pressure readings and blood sugar levels. However, that could be about to change: a handful of healthcare institutions are starting to offer online access to records and, if elected, the Conservatives are keen to allow patients to view and update their records over the web, using public sites such as HealthSpace and private sites such as Microsoft HealthVault.
"The context in which we operate is changing quite rapidly," Herbert continued. "We have some major developments in things such as patient reports... It is changing the way that the patient is involved with the health service and their GP."
A number of GP practices and some hospitals in the UK currently allow patients to access medical records on the web. At the Haughton Vale Surgery and the Thornley House medical centre in Manchester patients can view their records via a secure website - which helped one patient get medical treatment while on holiday in France, after they were able to let a French doctor access their records online - while the maternity unit of the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh allows parents to have access to their baby's records, which some parents have passed onto relatives to keep them updated.
In addition, six health trusts in the UK have created electronic medical care records and uploaded to a central database, giving patients access to more detailed medical information such as details of allergies and prescriptions, through the HealthSpace website.
The amount of healthcare information available online will only increase as society becomes tech savvy, according to Frances Blunden, senior policy manager with the NHS Confederation, the membership body for the National Health Service.
"It is inevitable this will start to happen as more and more patients find out you are able to do this and IT literacy among GPs becomes better," Blunden told silicon.com.
"There are some real benefits to giving patients access to their medical records to help them with monitoring their health, particularly as there are more people with long term health conditions.
"It can also answer a lot of questions that patients might have before going to an appointment, so the patient can be better prepared and make better use of that time," he said.
Some significant hurdles remain to mass adoption of online records, however. Although the number of people with access to more detailed records on the HealthSpace website will grow as more hospitals upgrade their patient administration systems to handle national electronic medical records, nationwide access remains years away, with a recent National Audit Office report estimating the upgrades will not be complete until 2014-15.
There also remains a general lack of awareness among the public about electronic medical records according to a recent study that found people living in areas where national electronic care records had been created were unclear about what information could be accessed.
The NHS Confederation's Blunden also cautioned that before the Conservative idea of allowing private companies to hold medical records could go ahead, issues relating to the interoperability of data and security would have to be addressed.
"I think it will be a lot more complicated than some of the advocates of the practice are making out," she said.
There is also some trepidation in the NHS about how technology is changing the nature of the doctor-patient relationship. Dr Richard Harries, consultant radiologist at North Lincolnshire and Goole Hospitals NHS Trust, warned that some doctors would find the prospect of more consultation with patients through methods such as email to be "quite scary".
"It is a two-edged sword - once you open up the link from patient to hospital it is going to affect the way that we work and I am not sure how well it would work."