The NHS is putting our records online and embracing apps, but is that a good thing?

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to access your NHS medical records, but it isn’t as easy as you might think. A few years ago, before my local surgery was fully on board with computers, I asked to take a look at mine. You’d think I’d accused my GP of medical malpractice.

After repeatedly explaining that it was because they’re mine and I’m allowed, the receptionist reluctantly made an appointment. But as I tried to flick through the many sheaves of paper in the ten minutes allotted, my doctor sat to one side saying, ‘I’m sure you’ll find there’s nothing amiss’ and ‘It’s really not that interesting’. I got the message: your diagnoses and treatment are none of your business, little lady.

Thank goodness, that attitude seems to be changing. Although I dread to think what was added to my file after that visit (‘paranoid delusional hypochondriac’, perhaps), the news that I’ll soon be able to access my records without a doctor breathing down my neck (or paying £50, as one ShinyShiny writer was quoted) feels like a huge step forward.

It’s an acknowledgement of something that isn’t always evident in our interactions with doctors: we do have autonomy and the right to know what our test results say. (Yes, I want my exact iron levels. No, that doesn’t mean I think I know more about medicine than you.)

From March 2015, we should all be able to access our GP records online. In 2016, there’ll be a digital version of the ‘red book’, where parents can keep track of their child’s vaccinations and any health issues, and by 2017, our entire medical histories should be on the internet and available to view on our smartphones.

Perhaps most interesting of all, in 2018 we’ll be able to add our own info: stats from wearables and apps showing anything from our sleep patterns to eating habits to mood fluctuations. In fact, not only will the NHS be allowing the use of health-tracking apps, they’ll be promoting them: their ‘Personalised Health and Care 2020’ statement wants to see doctors prescribing relevant apps to patients so we can be more in control (and go to see them less).

And, because you can’t always trust that health apps are secure (one US study found that the majority were sharing user info with third parties and failing to encrypt data), the NHS will be designating a Kitemark logo to apps that are safe to use. The effect of all of this digitisation is that it will be easier to look at, share, and add to our health info, saving the government up to £10 billion and revolutionising the way we use the health service.

It sounds modern, tech-savvy, and means I might never have to speak to a doctor’s receptionist again, all of which appeal to me. A lot. But our rush to leap into the future with a wearable on every extremity shouldn’t cloud our judgement about the possible downsides of the NHS’s sudden embrace of technology.

Let’s not act like we live in a world without hackers, where everything in the cloud is secure, and where governments have better online security systems than private companies. Speaking of which, once our data’s online, we don’t know who might eventually see it or control it. As The Mirror reports, the NHS has just put the management of GP support services out to tender, and US defence firm Lockheed Martin and controversial (to say the least) security firm G4S are apparently interested. I’m not actually a paranoid, delusional hypochondriac but we can’t be sure our info won’t one day be shared with anyone from medical researchers to insurance agents to our employers.

Not to get too ‘1984’ about the whole thing, but the government’s proven before that protecting our data isn’t a priority and will use trumped-up security concerns to access it or disseminate it as it sees fit. And while we all have access to the internet, many older people (who are more likely to have multiple health conditions) don’t, and if the NHS becomes totally paperless, they may find they’re reliant on others to see their own records, leaving them open to breach of privacy and even abuse.

Plus, it’s all very well doctors blithely recommending apps, but not everyone can afford a smartphone – we have to make sure that people on low incomes aren’t receiving a second class service, but it’s hard to see how the NHS will account for this.

Still, it’s probably too late to put the genie back in the bottle. Our info will eventually all be online whether we like it (or access it) or not. I guess all we can do is try to be more aware of not only what’s happening with our health, but with our health data, too.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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Diane Shipley

One thought on “The NHS is putting our records online and embracing apps, but is that a good thing?

  • I think online records will make the NHS work more effectively and make it easier for people to manager their own health. Daniel Ghinn, CEO at Creation Healthcare discusses whether NHS culture will be able to adapt in time to meet the deadline…

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