The NHS needs a culture change to drag itself out of the “information dark ages” and avoid reputational damage, the NHS Future Forum has said.

The forum’s report on information published today was co-written by Professor David Haslam, national clinical advisor to the Care Quality Commission, and National Voices chief executive Jeremy Taylor.

They wrote that barriers to a more effective use of information are “more cultural than technological. What is needed more than anything is a change of mindset in the NHS.”

The report recommends:

  • The universal adoption of the NHS patient number across health and social care by 2013
  • A presumption in favour of hospital discharge summaries being made available to the GP and patient at the point of discharge, and for GP referral letters to be made available at the point of referral.
  • A review of information governance rules should be carried out during 2012
  • A clear contractual requirement for all NHS or social care providers to fully share their data electronically
  • A clear deadline in the current Parliament for putting all information on clinical outcomes into the public domain
  • Each NHS organisation should appoint a clinician responsible for organising information to support better care

It said delays to the government’s information strategy, now expected to be released a year late in April 2012, had “reduced momentum for change and created a climate of uncertainty and drift”.

The strategy should include a clear plan for how the government will achieve its aspiration for all patients to have online access to their GP record, how that will be paid for, and how practices will be supported in making it happen.

The forum stressed the importance of “interoperability” – IT systems which are able to connect to one another. It said the role of government should be to set standards that ensure this rather than to impose particular systems from above, as happened in the National Programme for IT.

Mr Taylor told HSJ the information agenda had been “ceded to IT people, who had disappeared up their own technological complexities” and emphasised that information should be seen as an integral part of care.

Joining up data from different NHS organisations more effectively could also “make a major difference to the quality of care and the ability of hard pressed services to manage demand”, the Future Forum report says.

At present patients are frustrated at the “widespread inability of the NHS to communicate electronically” and its reliance on “snail mail”, it adds. This is at odds with “almost every other walk of life, and is increasingly a matter of reputational risk for the NHS”.

The service also risks being seen as out of touch if it fails to learn from patient feedback through social media, according tothe forum.

The forum criticised current information governance practice as one of several barriers to joining up data and using it for secondary uses such as clinical audit and research.

This, coupled with “organisational jealousy… territoriality and tribalism” makes it harder for NHS bodies to integrate care.

In a letter to the secretary of state for health, forum chair Professor Sir Steve Field said: “In an age of connectivity where people access information at the click of a button, the NHS cannot remain in the information dark ages.”

In its response to the report the government agreed that bringing about the “information revolution” would require significant culture change.

“The forum’s recommendations for the government will be taken forward in the forthcoming information strategy for health and social care in England, to be published by April 2012,” the response said.