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Integrating health and social care data: Why it's viable

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For some time, the NHS has enabled electronic health records (EHR) to be shared between health organisations. When you visit your GP surgery, the doctor will have access to details of medication a pharmacy has previously issued you with. To an extent, a similar thing happens within social care. Counselling services, for example, may have access to an individual’s mental health records that could indicate the gravity of the person’s situation. While organisations within the two sectors may be digitally integrated to share data, there’s little evidence of integration between the sectors, meaning that care providers may be unaware of relevant information that may have a bearing on a person’s care. To date the Government has viewed the integration of health and social care data areas as a technical challenge. However, recent announcements indicate that there is a growing will to ensure that the two areas cooperate more closely.

The biggest benefit of a joined up health and social care system is that it builds the wider picture of a patient’s health and wellbeing, which would enable the delivery of better quality of care. For example, if an elderly patient receives medication on a hospital ward that causes notable side-effects, a social care provider who makes regular visits to the patient’s home may need to adjust their care accordingly.

Human tragedies like the cases of Baby P and Victoria Climbié highlight the need to integrate health with social care. Both of these cases saw a failure in care, largely caused by social workers not having knowledge that the children had been treated in hospital for injuries. Had the social workers had access to health records, they would have had more of an indication of what was happening at the homes of the children.

While it’s clearly a priority for the Government, the challenge lies in the £30bn funding shortfall that is expected to hit the NHS by 2020. Commentators are already questioning where the funds for the integration may come from. Yet, there are clear examples of integration that’s already happening within the health and social care sector that clearly demonstrates that combining data from both sides should not be as costly as feared. As the health sector already shares data within its borders, most of the tools to enable this are already in place, but simply need to be extended outside healthcare. The Common Assurances Process (CAP) ensures IT systems for the NHS are adequate and that data is being shared securely. Since a well-defined process already exists for sharing data, CAP could pave the way to healthcare integrating with social care and reduce security risks that may arise from the changes.

We believe that rolling out the use of mobile data across the sectors is the key to enabling integration. Staff can update cloud-based data systems on the go, using mobile devices to send the information to the data centre and give other staff access to up-to-date information. This eliminates the need for care providers to return to their organisation’s premises and update the information there.

It’s not just the health and social care sectors that are due to be integrated; there are plans to join up records from clinical science, public health, local government and public representatives. At some point, all of our government records may be accessible to public sector organisations. We’ve seen that it’s viable and successful within sectors from the use of CAP, and while it may cost considerably to implement, we can be confident that it can be carried out on a wider basis with little concerns about security.

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