If politicians listened more to doctors about the use of IT in healthcare progress could be smoother, says Dr Tim Ringrose

The £12bn NHS IT programme budget is quite an investment in an era of public sector cutbacks. So it is crucial to know whether the programme will bring change and efficiencies to how doctors operate. Getting the views of the doctors themselves on this is essential.

More than 50,000 doctors use the Doctors.net.uk service each week, so it is well placed to research the opinions of thousands of medical professionals. 

This has the potential to help programmes such as the national IT programme get important messages to people who matter.

As part of a campaign to find out what medical professionals think of the national IT programme, Doctors.net.uk undertook a survey (with 1,566 respondents) to research doctors’ and managers’ attitudes to IT.  

The results make interesting reading and may be surprising to some. 

First, to dispel the myth that doctors oppose everything on principle, an overwhelming percentage of respondents did not agree with the statement that the IT programme should be ended. However, 87 per cent of doctors (and 82 per cent of managers) agreed with the statement that the IT programme should be reformed.

With earlier research from Doctors.net.uk demonstrating that doctors are definitely not technophobes – 93 per cent of doctors have broadband at home – and furthermore that doctors cite “professional search” as the most frequent (93 per cent) purpose for accessing the Internet, it is clear that doctors embrace technology that will offer real gains to their practice.

Furthermore, 80 per cent of doctors responded that it was either “very important” or “somewhat important” for the NHS to develop electronic patient record systems, elements of which can be shared across healthcare providers and accessed by different health professionals.

Strength of feeling was even higher among managers, of which over 60 per cent responded that a shared electronic patient record system was “very important”.

Opinion between doctors and managers started to divide, however, when it came to the question of how these electronic shared records should be achieved. The majority of managers (66 percent) were in favour of local solutions, while the majority of doctors (63 per cent) believed the development of detailed electronic patient records systems is best achieved by centrally purchased, common systems.

There was also a mismatch of opinion about the issue of patient access to their own records. When asked if they thought patients should be given access to their records an overwhelming majority of managers (88 per cent) said yes. Of the doctors, 64 per cent said no.

To drill down further into these figures, the survey found that 70 per cent of GPs were against patient access to their own records, while consultants were divided 50:50 on the question. 

Doctors and managers were again united when they were asked for their opinion on the Conservative Party’s suggestion to allow private firms to store and manage personal health records of NHS patients. The answer was an overwhelming no, with 86 per cent of doctors and 76 per cent of managers shunning the idea.

Even more compelling was the response to the NHS personal health record system HealthSpace.  Doctors.net.uk asked doctors and managers if they thought it would be preferable for the NHS to continue to build HealthSpace, rather than to take the storage and management of patient records to the private sector.  Almost all doctors (90 per cent) and 81 per cent of managers agreed.

So, why were doctors so against the intervention of private enterprise into the management of patient records? 

Their biggest concern related to the privacy of online health records with 40 per cent of managers and 60 per cent of doctors citing it as the drawback that concerned them the most.  For managers, the potential fragmentation of health records was also a concern with 28 per cent saying it was their biggest concern; while for almost 20 per cent of doctors the possibility that patients or others would remove vital information was the biggest drawback.