Ten years after plans were first laid for electronic healthcare records in the NHS, a clinician explores how the technology has changed the service

Maintaining accurate, instantly accessible, clear medical records is crucial to delivering excellent patient care and improving the health of the nation.

However, the 1998 Information for Health strategy noted that the NHS was lagging badly behind many other organisations in using computers and online technology. It announced a£1bn investment in modernising information collection, storage and use.

The government's plan to centralise all healthcare records in an electronic version, as outlined in the NHS Plan 2000, was the next national step towards modernising the NHS's information systems. The provision of a lifelong electronic health record for every person in the country was listed as the first of the four objectives for the project, which was given the go-ahead in 2002.

Up to the minute

From the clinician's viewpoint, the benefits of electronic records are numerous and cannot be overemphasised. The days when crucial decisions about patients seen out of hours were delayed until the medical records were available the next morning are over.

Electronic records also make it easier to analyse information for audit and research purposes. Clinicians no longer have to bother about physically pulling notes from shelves. Results can be analysed at the click of a mouse. Taking the drudgery out of audits and research means there is a better incentive to monitor individual and corporate practice.

Patient journey

The most rewarding benefit for me is the ease with which I can now monitor and learn from my patient's journey as they move through different sites and specialties in the service. The time saved on making telephone calls for updates on patient care is priceless.

Thankfully, the risks associated with illegible writing have been obviated by electronic records. Electronic records have not, however, been able to eliminate an equally weighty risk of clinical errors from misinterpreting abbreviations and acronyms.

Clinicians are not the only beneficiaries from the modernisation of the information processing system. The improved access to online care information now allows patients and carers to make more informed care choices. This benefit cannot be overemphasised when one considers that it is reasonable to expect patients are more likely to take ownership and comply with a care plan they have been involved in compiling rather than one that was forced on them by clinicians.