Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has showcased ambitious plans for a paperless National Health Service by 2018, saving lives and the NHS a potential £4.4 billion a year.

In a speech to think-tank Policy Exchange last night, Hunt noted that patients should have compatible digital records so that their health information can be accessed anywhere in the health and social care system with just the touch of a button.

Under the plans, patients' medical records will be online by March 2015, and be part of a fully connected health and social care service by 2018.

The move comes with the publication of a study by Price Waterhouse Coopers into the better use information and technology, which found that the greater use of text messages, electronic prescribing and electronic patient records could boost patient care, free up health professionals to spend more time with patients, and save nearly £4.5 billion a year.

"The NHS cannot be the last man standing as the rest of the economy embraces the technology revolution," Hunt said, noting that 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".

However, for hospitals to make information digitally and securely available by 2014-15, the quality of information and data integration must be improved and this critical area of business has long been ignored, one expert claims.  

Mikko Soirola, vice president of data integration specialist Liaison Technologies, said that while the "savings potential of going digital is undeniable", in order to release the maximum benefit the "data quality has to be of the highest order and data integration across the entire supply chain has to be sorted".

But, he points out, there are few NHS organisations which have a dedicated position of data manager. "Which means no one checks if organisational data is correct and accurate…The sad fact is that if you have poor data to work with from the start, you will never maximise your return or achieve best practice" .

Privacy fears

And critics of the move also fear that patients' privacy could be at risk.

"The Department of Health needs to be absolutely clear who will hold our medical records, who can access them and reassure patients that their privacy will not be destroyed in another NHS IT blunder," commented Nick Pickles, director of campaign group Big Brother Watch.

"There is a real risk that if patients aren't assured that this scheme is fully secure then people will stop sharing information with their doctor and that could be extremely dangerous for care," he warned.

Also, previous attempts at improving NHS IT have been disastrous; Labour's ill-fated programme crashed and burned in 2011 along with £6 billion of taxpayer's money.

Learning lessons

“Previous attempts to crack this became a top down project akin to building an aircraft carrier," the health secretary said, adding: "We need to learn those lessons – and in particular avoid the pitfalls of a hugely complex, centrally specified approach".

As such, under the coalition's plans, clinical commissioning groups will be able to design their own IT systems, as long as they fit with a national set of standards enabling them to communicate with each other.

Tim Kelsey, National Director for Patients and Information in the NHS Commissioning Board, has welcomed the "challenge to unleash the power of information and technology for patients and those who serve them". 

"We are committed to transforming transparency and participation in the NHS - the digital data revolution is key to improving outcomes and putting patients and carers more in control," he said.