Published: 02/06/2005, Volume II5, No. 5958 Page 32

The increasing use of information and communication technology in healthcare is driving thinking around how knowledge is processed and conveyed.

With the development of electronic patient records, a partnership between Nottingham University's nursing school and Ashfield and Mansfield District primary care trust saw a chance to tap into the potential of virtual documentation to promote inter-professional learning.

They subsequently secured funding for a practice scholarship to explore e-learning.

Their research took them to the US, where an academic business venture between Kansas University medical centre in Missouri and software manufacturer Cerner Corporation uses electronic patient records as a learning medium.

Using a virtual patient record, US healthcare students are provided with 'womb-to-tomb' scenarios that support the development of skills in situational competence and informed judgment.

UK government recommendations - going as far back as the 1998 Department for Education and Employment green paper The Learning Age - outlined the need for a shift towards collaborative links and work-related skills and knowledge.

This opportunity for learning should make healthcare planners and providers in the UK consider the intrinsic worth of a new information and communication technology system, beyond maintenance, storage and retrieval of service-user data.

Case studies as learnable events common to a range of practitioners are the preferred approach of the PCTs.

Merely presenting colleagues with a digital approach will not in itself promote inter-professional working.

Organisations thinking about new ways of learning may be attracted by some useful elements of this approach.

In Kansas, the environment is a paperless classroom, where technology is taken for granted. From the outset, students work at their own pace but consult with each other. The case studies facilitate the interaction between the learners, irrespective of future professional activity.

The safety of being able to question and discuss online, without the restrictions of status, power and attitudes, is a good opportunity to develop partnerships between work groups.

The development of NHS Connecting for Health should herald a surge in skills development, with a related cultural shift in attitude, confidence and competence.

Technology should become the lever for a learning process that drives critical thinking, experiential knowledge and intercultural collaboration forward.

E-learning activities allow new behaviours to be shared clearly and quickly, promoting better working practices. Spin-offs from inter-professional learning include strategic scrutiny of skills overlap and the opportunity to redefine workloads in line with national and local priorities.

Fern Todhunter is a nursing health lecturer at Nottingham University and Craig Kershaw is director of workforce development at Ashfield and Mansfield District PCT.