The National Health Service is delving deeper into the digital era with the launch of Summary Care Records in London this week, which are designed to provide healthcare professionals with immediate access to patients’ medical information.

SCRs, a component of the government’s much-flogged £13-billion National Programme for IT, are essentially secure, electronic summaries of patient health data, including medications, allergies and drug reactions, and their introduction has been shrouded in controversy and hit by long delays.

Initially, information will be garnered from current GP records to provide doctors across primary and secondary care with faster and more accurate access to such critical health information on the patient. But records can be updated by other healthcare professionals as necessary, and there is also the potential to include additional information on other care factors such as patients’ end-of-life wishes.

It is hoped that the scheme will help improve care across the board, particularly as clinicians will no longer have to rely on patient testimony, which is not possible in all medical situations anyway, and it also reduces the margin of error when dealing with the elderly, who are often on a whole batch of drugs and can have difficulty remembering them all, or with those for whom English is a second language. In addition, SCRs should make it easier for doctors working out-of-hours by providing an immediate picture of the patient’s health at their fingertips.

“Getting hold of health records for London’s highly mobile population often presents real challenges to doctors and nurses when patients need out-of-hours and emergency care,” said Ruth Carnall, Chief Executive of NHS London. “The Summary Care Record has demonstrated clear benefits elsewhere in the country and NHS London is keen to bring these to the capital”, she added.

But critics have long voiced concern over security issues associated with storing patients’ health information electronically and argue that the system is too open to abuse by human curiosity, with a much greater potential for healthcare professionals accessing the system to take sneaky peak at their neighbours’ records, for example.

Raising awareness
And commenting on the scheme, Dr Grant Ingrams, Chair of the British Medical Association's GP IT committee, said while it has the potential to improve the quality and safety of patient care, “it is critical for the programme’s success that all patients receive balanced information” and are made aware of the opt-out clause. “If patients feel they are being coerced, or have a summary care record created without their knowledge or understanding, it will damage the credibility of the project,” he explained.

Furthermore, he warned that the impact on workload “must be monitored carefully as we do not want GPs to be overwhelmed with enquiries about electronic records leading to increased waiting times for patients”.

The records have already been trialled in a number of regions across England, and Strategic Health Authorities across the country now planning to implement them as part of a national roll-out next year, the DH said.