The NHS has long held the vision of going paperless, but practices are still full of documents and folders packed full of the stuff. To help you make the transition smoothly, online cloud faxing solutions’ provider eFax have produced a 7-step guide to turning your practice paperless
Paper documentation presents problems for the healthcare sector’ it poses security risks, make it difficult to find historic data, wastes time through administrative tasks and takes up inordinate amounts of space.
What’s more, the NHS has now been banned from procuring any new physical fax machines, and all existing fax machines must be phased out by March 2020.
With all of that in mind, the NHS has an overall goal for the healthcare sector to be paperless by 2020.
The idea of a paperless healthcare system has numerous benefits, such as increased data security, reduced risk of breaching patient confidentiality and better management of resources.
Going paperless — whether as part of the 2020 target or not — is something your GP practice should consider for improving workflow and enhancing your work environment. So, how do you actually achieve a paperless workspace?
On a national scale, for the entire NHS, it will be a monumental task – but on a small scale, for individual practices, it can be done quite simply. By following this 7-step guide to success, you can turn your GP practice paperless and reap the benefits in no time.
Step 1: Understanding what paperless means in healthcare
In their statement for Paperless 2020 NHS Digital outlined four primary reasons for making the entirety of the health and social care sector paper-free:
- Give patients more control over their health and well-being
- Empower carers
- Reduce the administrative burden of care professionals
- Support the development of new medicines and treatments.
In order to achieve these goals paper documentation must become digitised. This concept was put forward back in 2016, as stated in the agenda for upcoming NHS Digital strategies:
“All patient and care records will be digital, real-time and interoperable by 2020.”
The result is that GP practices seeking to meet the 2020 paperless deadline, and the demands of NHS Digital, need to move to a digital platform. In order to do so effectively, you’ll need to make sure your IT systems comprehensively cover all necessary patient data and information.
This means transferring paper documents to digital storage, allowing them to be electronically accessed and making sure all documents created thereafter are digital — and remain exclusively digital.
Step 2: Identify your paper assets
Start your road to a paperless GP practice by asking yourself, “Where is our paper?”
Paper documents can be stored in a multitude of places. Paper is a particularly easy asset to misplace – one of the reasons many organisations across the healthcare sector are making paperless environments a top priority. To go paperless, you need to identify where all your documents and files are. By doing so you can:
- Create an effective strategy for transference to digital formats
- Ensure all information about your patients and GP practice is moved to a better-protected place
- Help reduce breaches of data and confidentiality as a result of not having paper left lying around
- Reduce time spent searching for paper documents at a later date.
Establish exactly where all your records are located. Gather and collect everything you need to move to a paperless system in a centralised location.
Step 3: Decide on your digital platform
The NHS is committed to seeing a healthcare industry that replaces paper documentation with digital files. October 2018 saw the beginning of the paper switch-off programme, with all third-party referrals now required to be submitted digitally rather than through paper methods.
The healthcare service aims to be an exclusively digital system, as outlined in their programme of delivery for Paperless 2020. In order to meet this NHS goal, it is vital that GP practices start to adopt comprehensive data management and communication processes that are entirely digital.
In practice, this means that both your old paper documents and digital files need to transition to digital, and that incoming communications need to come from an electronic service – but what exactly does this mean for your GP practice?
- Transmission — GP practices need to share a lot of information, which means you need an effective system of communication and data transmission. Currently, many practices send paper through physical fax machines and physical paper documents by post, but this is not conducive to your paperless goals. New methods of transmission must be found.
- Storage — In order to become paperless all documents must be stored in digital format, eliminating paper filing and management. This requires you to find a method of uploading/saving files in digital formats that can be easily accessed and shared.
To achieve this, the easy options would appear to be saving files on your computer’s primary operating system in standard folder formats and using emails as communication methods. However, given the complexities of the healthcare system, this type of solution is not going to be effective.
Predictions are, unfortunately, bleak for a completely paper-free health and social care environment by 2020. While new initiatives are being introduced, currently entrenched systems – such as healthcare’s reliance on old-fashioned physical fax machines – means organisations within the sector may not be able to achieve a completely paperless GP practice. As a result, ditching the ability to fax isn’t going to support the comprehensive transmission of documentation, and could leave your GP practice struggling to send and receive information. Data protection legislation, and the introduction of GDPR, has called into question the level of security required when storing documents containing personal data; therefore, password-protected access controls, and document encryption protocols, are essential.
So what is the paperless solution?
Online fax services enable your GP practice to continue sending faxes — simply via a digital format. You can receive faxes from fax machines as well; they are simply acquired as re-formatted digital files. Digital faxing can also connect and merge with email services, allowing you to effectively send messages to patients and those working in the industry. The platform ensures comprehensive communication all under one service, creating a more efficient working environment and removing your need for paper at the same time.
The benefits don’t stop there. Document storage is also a necessity under Paperless 2020. Online faxing services offer management software that allows you to upload, store and access your files all in a centralised location. Online faxing offers built-in access controls, and encryption, to enable your GP practice to increase document security.
Step 4: Learn how and where documents must be stored
So you’ve identified your physical documentation and found a platform on which to store them. Now, you need to work out three things:
- What documentation can successfully be moved to digital?
- What must be kept as a paper file?
- What paper documents can be destroyed?
All this information is clearly laid out in the NHS’s Records Management Code of Practice for Health and Social Care 2016. The code informs those working in health and social care what is expected of them in terms of document management. Pay particular attention to Appendix 3 of the document, as here you will find a ‘schedule of retention’. This outlines what documents must be kept, for how long, and what to do with them after.
Referral to these instructions and guidelines will allow you to establish where your files are going to be stored. Most documents can now be stored digitally as part of the drive for paperless, but not all files can be solely digital — paper is still required for some of your most essential documentation.
Step 5: Destroy unnecessary paper
Once you’ve gathered this information, and established exactly what can be made digital, the documents you gathered in step two can be moved – but, before that, you need to do some housekeeping.
Effective transference of documents to the new digital systems should first start with the destruction of outdated or unnecessary paper — what can and can’t be destroyed is made clear in NHS Digital retention schedule. If you don’t need them, you don’t need to dedicate time storing them on your IT systems. Go through your paper documentation during the initial transition period and identify anything that is unnecessary – and destroy it appropriately. The NHS also outlines how this should be done, stating:
“Paper records can be destroyed to an international standard. They can be incinerated, pulped or shredded (using a cross cut shredder) under confidential conditions. Do not use the domestic waste or put them in a rubbish tip.”
Step 6: Transfer your documents
With unnecessary documents destroyed, you are left with two types of files — those that can be transferred to digital and documents that must be retained as paper.
For files that can be put onto your computer systems, you’ll now start the manual process of uploading and storing them. This can be a painstaking process but, in order to achieve a paperless GP practice, it must be done. It’s a simple task, but it takes a long time. You have three choices:
- Scan your files
- Upload them as captured images
- Enter the data into new records.
Time is the crucial factor here. An investment must be made in making sure all documents are uploaded correctly, and to the appropriate location within your digital systems; a rush job will create problems and confusion in the future, and important files may be missed. The Records Management Code of Practice for Health and Social Care 2016 offers advice on best practice for document transference.
Once you’ve moved all your records and documents over to your new systems, the paper documents that have been uploaded can now be destroyed — unless they are required to be kept both electronically and digitally.
Step 7: Maintain practice
The concept of using paper as a source of storing records, and maintaining documents, is likely woven into the very foundation of your healthcare practice; this means that getting out of the habit might be a challenge! While you can introduce new digital systems, eradicate fax machines and destroy all your old and useless files, old ways can creep back in, if you let them.
Part of your paperless goals must include a commitment, and a dedication, to remain paperless. Consider ways in which paper could find its way back into your practice, how processes could degenerate to more archaic forms, and then develop methods of avoiding that type of scenario.
One potential problem you may face is third-parties sending paper documents. If this does happen, put in place strategies to avoid disruption to your paperless practice by:
- Requesting they only send digital files when possible
- Making sure any paper that does come through is uploaded to your IT systems quickly
- Securely shredding paper received immediately so as to not cause a build-up/backlog.
Another problem you may encounter is clients and patients requesting files be sent as paper documents. In this circumstance, simply ensure you aren’t maintaining copies, and that the retained versions of the documents are digital only.