Going paperless in healthcare: A step-by-step guide

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The eFax Team share their step-by-step guide to going paperless in healthcare.

Besides environmental factors and a desire for a more sustainable business model, paperless workplaces encourage better data protection, reduce resource output, and add benefits to workflow and file management. If that isn’t enough, the NHS’s ambitious plan to go paperless by 2020, as well as its recent decision to ban all new acquisitions of fax machines, could leave healthcare organisations that operate outdated document platforms on the back foot.

Going paper-free carries a lot of advantages, but this leads to another question how can you make sure your business is paperless?

In its Records Management Code of Practice for Health and Social Care 2016, the NHS sets out a series of guidelines and rules regarding how documents and data should be stored and regulated. As part of its bid to become paperless, record-keeping in some digital formats has become an accepted practice that falls within NHS regulatory guidelines.

This means many current paper-record systems may be obsolete and unnecessary.  

However, before you start throwing out paper, the NHS has also created a series of guidelines on what documents should be stored in the event of audits, references and potential legal matters. These guidelines should be considered carefully when making changes to document storage and management. The document highlights not only what needs to be stored, but also how and where it should be kept, allowing you to make informed decisions in terms of what can be made digital and what must remain as a paper record.

This knowledge allows you to take the necessary steps toward going paperless.

Step One – Upgrade software

The NHS advises that paperless operations support a more connected and secure healthcare industry. Going paperless is essentially another word for going digital. This means you will rely on software and computer networks moving forward, making the selection of the right software crucial. In order to achieve such goals, you will need to establish important digital functions such as:

  • Communication and transmission: Removing paper means no longer sending mail or using physical fax machines to transfer information. However, you’ll still need to send and receive critical documents. Communication with both patients and other healthcare organisations must continue as normal, and that includes sending faxes. This will require the adoption of technology that supports all communication needs.
  • Document management: Documents that were stored and accessed in paper form need to be housed in a new location. You could use standard systems available on your operating system, like files and folders. However, specialised technology can be beneficial if you’re looking to enhance security, streamline operations, and integrate document management facilities that are easy to access and maintain.  

Achieving effective document management and transmission in digital formats may sound like a more complicated process than sending mail, using a physical fax machine and storing documents in a cabinet, but if you opt for the right digital solutions, it doesn’t have to be.  

Online cloud-faxing services can support both of these functions.

Cloud-faxing enables the transmission of data to both physical fax machines and other cloud-faxing services. Processes don’t need to change, as all communication can remain the same – it is just done exclusively through a digital platform. You can still receive faxes, but now you don’t need a physical paper-based fax machine to do so. You can also send patients and partners the same documents and information you normally would – faxes can be converted and submitted through emails for patient communication. However, it will now be handled electronically, eliminating physical paper documents from the process. The cloud-based service also features a centralised document management system, where all files can be uploaded, stored and accessed in one place, making it easy for you to go paperless.

Step Two  – Transfer your paper documents

Over the years, you have likely stored a lot of paper documents. This paper will only absorb space, time and resources – which do not contribute to the successful integration of paperless work. Having opted to go paperless, it is important to move documentation over to digital formats.

As outlined in the NHS Digital code, it is advised that you keep some files in a physical, paper format. However, anything that can be made digital should be made digital. This is also relevant to some physical documents that may be required for short-term or immediate usage, but can then be transferred to long-term digital storage. Moving documents to digital formats allows you to:

  1. Find documents easily
  2. Destroy old paper documents in order to meet the NHS paperless by 2020 goal
  3. Better manage and protect data through increased security measures.

But what does this mean in practice?

It means locating all the documents you intend to maintain through a digital system and uploading them to your selected IT systems. You can do this by:

  • Scanning documents
  • Capturing them with cameras
  • Entering data manually into new record forms.

This process could be resource-extensive and time-consuming, but in order to achieve a paperless work environment, you should consider dedicating time to this essential part of the process.

Step Three – Make your clients and partners aware

Your patients and partners play a role in minimising the amount of paper you receive. It is often at their discretion whether or not to use digital services.

Creating an awareness campaign could help to achieve a paperless practice. Let those who use your services, or work with them, know you are attempting to become an organisation that operates on a digital platform, and encourage them to support your goals by reducing the amount of paper they bring into your organisation and request from it.

Look at exactly where you are creating paper build-ups and work to reduce the need for physical documents in those areas – for example, by sending information via email or text instead of by post.

Most people like the idea of a paperless environment; and many other healthcare organisations you work with will also be seeking to improve their practices as part of the Paperless 2020 initiative. Simply by demonstrating you are trying to achieve such goals, and offering ways others can help you do that, you’ll find most are willing to support the campaign.

Step Four – Remove unnecessary paper

Once you have identified which documents can be made digital, which must remain in paper format, and which are no longer necessary on either platform, it is time to remove unnecessary paper documentation.

These may be old records, now useless instructions and outdated directive documents, details from previous suppliers, or even important documents that can be stored digitally, for example.

Keeping unnecessary paper files is taking up space and failing to support your goals of a paperless work environment. Along with these problems, unnecessary documents lead to an increased risk of potential data breaches and an increased risk of non-compliance with the GDPR.

NHS Digital outlines exactly how documentation can be destroyed, 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 domestic waste or put them in a rubbish tip.”

Step Five — Maintain your position

It’s easy to slip back into old habits, and your policy on paperless operation is no exception. Once you go paperless, staying paperless can be a challenge, especially when partners and suppliers submit paper documents, and GPs, trusts and other healthcare entities send over physical records and correspondence.

Crucial to the success of your paperless commitments is to both be vigilant and actively maintain a paper-free environment. Notice when paper is becoming a problem and look at further ways of developing paperless activities. This may include talks with services and patients, or simply dedicating additional time to ensure all paper records brought in are put into computer systems and dealt with immediately before backlogs occur.

Part of your paperless maintenance strategy can also include audits of documentation currently kept in paper form as part of NHS guidelines, looking to identify instances where storage of these files is no longer needed.

If you’re going paperless in healthcare, the eFax Team offers a range of solutions to assist you.