Responsibility for the NHS central register, which contains nearly 150 million patient registration records, transferred from the Office of National Statistics to the Information Centre for health and social care on 1 April, further establishing the Information Centre as England's primary resource for authoritative health and social care information.

Containing 60 years of records dating from when the NHS was established in July 1948, the register is an essential resource. In effect, it is a database of everyone who is, or ever has been, registered with a GP in England or Wales.

Currently, the register's main purpose is to maintain an accurate list of everyone registered with a GP, allowing the timely transfer of medical records and correct payments to doctors.

It does this using an in-house computer system known as CHRIS (central health register inquiry system), which has been in use since 1991. Around 9 million changes are made to the database each year, reflecting births, marriages, deaths, patient movements and name changes.

Untapped potential

Not only does the acquisition of the register increase the Information Centre's portfolio of health and social care information, it also offers the possibility of developing an even more complete picture of patient care.

The register is already used for a variety of medical and demographic research projects, such as recording all incidences of cancer and generating population migration data. But it may be possible to extend this function further.

The Information Centre's initial plan is to maintain the current service to the same high standard, using the valued skills of the 151 staff who have transferred to the Information Centre along with the register.

Frontline benefits

Although maintaining the system is our priority, in the future we might look at how to further harness the data generated by the register. As no-one is ever removed from the register, it now holds around 145 million records manually and 75 million electronically. It is thought to be the largest person database in the country.

It may be feasible to link information from this vast resource with other Information Centre data, producing a more in-depth picture of patient care and outcomes. Ultimately, the purpose of further developing the system would be to provide frontline staff with more meaningful, timely information than ever before.

We are just beginning to consider such developments. However, I believe the initial and most important step - making the register part of the healthcare family - has already been taken.