Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has announced the NHS “should go paperless” by 2018 as he outlined his digital records vision for the health service.

The announcement came amid warnings from senior figures that some hospitals had just a year left to meet an NHS Commissioning Board deadline for upgrading to electronic patient record (EPR) systems.

Mapping out his vision, Mr Hunt said going paperless would “save billions” and warned the health service could not afford to be “the last man standing as the rest of the economy embraces the technical revolution”.

In a speech hosted by think-tank Policy Exchange, he said by April 2018 “digital information [should] be fully available across NHS and social care services”.

He added: “It is crazy that ambulance drivers cannot access a full medical history of someone they are picking up in an emergency - and that GPs and hospitals still struggle to share digital records.”

Mr Hunt reiterated a string of targets to be hit between now and 2018, beginning with a target outlined by the NHS Commissioning Board in December for all trusts to have EPR systems in place by 2014-15.

The targets included previously announced plans to give patients online access to their GP records and to establish paperless referrals by March 2015, and to put in place clear plans for integrated patient records. 

The health secretary’s speech clarified the timeframe in which the government hoped to achieve its well-trailed ambition to rid the health service of paper records.

Commissioning Board planning guidance published in December outlined plans for paperless referrals by March 2015.

In an exclusive interview with HSJ earlier last month, Mr Hunt admitted the NHS would not be entirely paperless by 2015 but pledged to provide an answer as to when he thought it might be.

However, there remain fundamental questions around how many trusts are in a position to deliver on such an ambitious programme.  

Commissioning Board director of informatics Tim Kelsey told HSJ that acute trusts which did not yet have EPR systems in place had just a year left to rectify this, but admitted it was unclear how many trusts were in this position.

He conceded it was a “challenging target”, but added: “As set out in the planning guidance, from April 2014 we are going to be requiring a set of data from hospitals which will imply the existence of safe electronic record keeping.”