For decades, healthcare professionals and technologists have been trying to bring about fast and easy access to vital information. They should finally achieve this goal through the convergence of the Internet and health - e-health.
If the government continues to take measures to implement IT-enabled healthcare - for example, the full electronic health records promised in the NHS plan by 2005 - e-health will become a reality.
However, if the government is to achieve its goals, overriding problems within the NHS must be addressed. It is an alarming fact that most IT systems and software being used by the NHS are not integrated.
As in Australia, a lack of widely agreed and implemented standards for health information is hindering the integration of key data from disparate NHS sources.
Until healthcare professionals can collect data in a standard format according to widely accepted definitions, it will be virtually impossible to link data generated in various parts of the NHS meaningfully.
In Australia, there is a strong focus on building a reliable infrastructure for information management. The national health information standards advisory committee has been set up to advocate the adoption of national standards relevant to health information. The increasing importance of electronic health records has underscored the vital role that standards have to play in ensuring compatibility and transferability of data from one location to another.
The UK government's long-term vision of a truly integrated EHR will not be realised unless appropriate standards are implemented that allow products and services from different vendors to work seamlessly. Software vendors need to work together to ensure their systems are interoperable for the benefit of patient care and informed clinical decision-making. Once these systems are linked within the healthcare sector we are a step closer to exploiting the full potential of the Internet and achieving complete integration underpinned by a more robust and reliable infrastructure.
Better-informed clinicians can then strive to ensure patient care is maintained at an optimal level. But these legacy systems will not go away overnight - it needs time, investment and correct decision-making by IT managers to ensure new IT systems are inter-operable and therefore maintaining the continuum of care.
Ideally, we would like to see a gradual phasing out of legacy systems over time in close consultation and collaboration with the software industry.