Government admits target to eliminate paper prescribing by 2024 will be missed

The Department of Health and Social Care has said implementation of digital prescribing across the NHS will be pushed back to 2025, citing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the delay.
clinician on computer

A target to eliminate paper prescribing and introduce digital prescribing across the NHS by 2024 has been delayed by a year, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has told MPs.

Written evidence from the DHSC, published on 21 June 2023, to the House of Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee inquiry into the provision of pharmacy services also revealed that a fifth (20%) of hospital trusts are still using a “high proportion” of paper-only prescriptions.

The ‘NHS Long Term Plan‘, published in January 2019, promised to introduce digital-only prescribing across the NHS by 2024. However, the DHSC evidence submitted to the select committee said this commitment “is on track to be met” but added: “The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has meant some NHS Trusts have delayed plans for implementation of EPMA [electronic prescribing and medication administration] systems.

“The pandemic and the subsequent focus on recovery has meant the timeline of 2024 for implementing EPMA has needed to be pushed out to 2025. However, the implementation of e-prescribing remains a key and appropriate deliverable as part of the vision to digitally transform the NHS.”

In its evidence, the DHSC said it is currently carrying out a “digital maturity assessment” across NHS trusts, and although it is yet to be validated, the data show that 80% of trusts have some form of electronic prescribing and 3% “have achieved the commitment of e-prescribing across all appropriate NHS services with sophisticated systems”.

It added: “It is not clear the total amount of funding that has gone into providing e-prescribing to hospitals, as it would have been a combination of national and local funding routes.

“The funding that has been made available has largely been focused on supporting the costs of the IT systems. 

“Dedicated funding has not been provided for digital teams within NHS Trusts to support the implementation and on-going deployment and optimisation of e-prescribing systems.”

Commenting on the DHSC evidence, Nathan Burley, president of the Guild of Healthcare Pharmacists, said: “EPMA represents an incredibly complex programme of work to digitise prescribing across all four countries. Myriad IT systems with interoperability and harmonisation between them all is an aspirational yet challenging goal to realise.

“Funding promises from government frequently fail to materialise and complex implementation plans have not been resourced properly. This is unacceptable given that EPMA needs proper pharmacist and technician resource to maintain systems and leverage benefits from the rich data they produce. 2025 is an ambitious yet unrealistic goal without proper financial backing from government.”

In September 2022, The Pharmaceutical Journal revealed that less than half (5 out of 11) hospital trusts that responded to a freedom of information request had fully implemented an EPMA system, with trusts citing COVID-19 and software issues as causes for the delay.

The Health and Social Care Committee’s pharmacy services inquiry will continue to take written evidence until 6 July 2023.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, July 2023, Vol 311, No 7975;311(7975)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2023.1.190640

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