For most of us, booking a GP appointment or picking up that repeat prescription remains stuck in the bygone era of steam-age telephony and verbal contact (eventually).
So health secretary Andrew Lansley’s weekend announcement that all GPs will be required to have an online booking system and secure email access (will Lord Justice Leveson certify that it cannot be hacked?) by 2015 is definitely progress, worth at least a one-handed clap.
Too much perhaps to expect the secretary of state to inform MPs about his good news information policy in person at Westminster, he did so courtesy of BBC TV’s Andrew Marr Show.
On this occasion, MPs did not complain, being much too busy protesting for and against the watered-down Beecroft report’s ambition to make it easier for small firms (future primary care providers?) to sack workers. In his written Commons statement, Mr Lansley noted “this new information strategy does not reinvent large-scale information systems or set down detailed mechanisms for delivery on a national template”, a jibe at you-know-whose top-down Connecting for Health IT legacy.
On the other hand, much of the 155-page The Power of Information: Putting all of us in control of the health and care information we need (available here) is distinctly aspirational, more of a framework or indeed our old friend the “route map”, not to mention “ambitions, not targets”. Duh?
Lansley specifically set out three themes: information access, including online records; safe, modern and mutually compatible systems for health professionals, which include clinical portals and barcodes in care homes to protect the elderly from the wrong medicine; and citizen-patient rights to access records and get feedback.
“Splendid, splendid,” as Willie Whitelaw, Mrs Thatcher’s wise old deputy (the coalition cabinet lacks such a figure) used to say.
It has the potential to end the frustration of long waits and having to repeat information, travelling pointless distances for service available in better ways, not to mention promote the elusive goal of more integrated care where the NHS can talk to itself – and even to the local council.
In a recent article bemoaning slow progress, Stephen Dorrell, Tory chair of the Commons health committee, likened the parallel universes of social care and its health partners – primary, community, mental, hospital, not to mention social housing – to the world of the 1950s.
“At a time when most modern organisations have been restructured around IT systems that ensure information is collected once and passed efficiently to those best able to use it, our health and care system continues to be built on fragmented IT systems which are unable to communicate with each other.”
Well, yes, and that challenge is what the new strategy seeks to address, albeit unheroically in tough times when money and surplus creative energy is in short supply.
Amid routine cynicism, the professions expressed polite support mixed with concerns that systems will be genuinely secure or that patients will devour GPs’ precious time by wanting their notes explained.
Had Mr Lansley faced MPs he would have encountered a fear which stalks elected politicians: that the information gap, like the wealth gap and the healthy food gap, is widened by such opportunities. That the old and ill, the poor and poorly educated, cannot access an accessible NHS because they are not online.
As I heard an old lady say only this week, ”After my stroke I found I’d forgotten all I knew about the computer. So I gave up.”