Electronic Signatures in Healthcare: How Electronic Signatures Can Help the NHS?

Posted 8th July 2020

If we think about all the documentation used in healthcare, from prescriptions and fit notes to clinical charts and care plans-not to mention the plethora of administrative documents behind the scenes, that’s a lot of paperwork that needs to be printed, signed and stored… and a bureaucratic process that takes valuable time away from patient care. It’s estimated that nurses spend a quarter of their shift managing paperwork and EHRs (Electronic Health Records), while doctors can spend up to 49.2% of their working hours filling in documents.

With healthcare professionals under more pressure than ever to deliver in an overburdened and underfunded healthcare system, the last thing they need to worry about is managing reems of paperwork. The digitalisation of documents could go a long way to alleviating some of this pressure, enabling our healthcare workers to spend more time with patients and less time on paperwork. Electronic Health Records, introduced in 2015, are a vital first step towards a paperless healthcare service. Despite this, in 2019, only 10% of NHS Trusts had achieved full digitalisation, with a further 62% making plans to go paperless by 2023.

 

How Can Electronic Signatures Help?

Electronic signatures are a vital component of digitalisation. In a high-risk environment such as a hospital or GP surgery, procedures and processes are in place to protect patients and ensure they receive the best possible treatment, performed to the highest standards. Signatures are required to keep a record of the patient’s treatments and to cover healthcare professionals in case of legal disputes. Electronic signatures, however, can help hospitals and GPs achieve their target of going paperless, whilst upholding the strict procedures necessary in a healthcare environment.

Rather than printing, signing, scanning and filing the necessary paperwork, electronic signatures allow healthcare professionals to sign documents digitally, helping to streamline these vital processes and free up time to spend on patient care.

 

Are Electronic Signatures Legally Binding in Healthcare?

Like their handwritten counterparts, electronic signatures signify ‘knowledge, approval, acceptance, or obligation’ to the conditions outlined in a document, making these specified conditions legally binding and admissible in court. Electronic signatures have been legally binding in the UK since 2000, with the introduction of the Electronic Communication Act (2000). Furthermore, in September 2019, the Law Commission published a comprehensive report supporting the legality of electronic signatures in demonstrating ‘intention and agreement’, which helped to clear up any remaining doubt surrounding their legality and validity.

In a healthcare setting, electronic signatures also retain their legality and court admissibility and can therefore be used in place of handwritten signatures, or ‘wet’ signatures, on all healthcare related documents including:

 

Obtaining Consent to treat  

The NHS website states that consent to treat means “a person must give permission before they receive any type of medical treatment, test or examination.” This consent can be given verbally, like in the case of a blood test, or in writing, like signing a consent form for surgery. This consent must be done on the basis of an explanation by a clinician, so the patient can make an informed decision on the risks and benefits of the procedure. A signature indicates the patient’s agreement to the surgery and acceptance of risk, which will help to avoid any legal disputes in the future.

An electronic signature can digitalise this process, helping the hospital to reduce time spend on administrative duties, and allowing the medical professionals to focus on the patient rather than the paperwork. It can also help to eliminate physical document storage, automatically filing the digitalised document in the EHR without the need for scanning. If, for whatever reason, the document is needed in the future, it can be easily accessed in its digital format in the hospital records.

 

Signing Prescriptions

Electronic signatures could make the entire prescription process paperless. Rather than taking your signed paper prescription to your pharmacist, your doctor could forward an electronically signed prescription straight to the pharmacy. Fully digitalising prescriptions has the ability to make the patient’s life a lot easier, especially if they require repeat prescriptions or multiple medications. It effectively eliminates the middleman, by getting the GP surgery in direct contact with their chosen pharmacy.

In a hospital environment, electronic signatures have the potential to speed up the prescription process, automatically storing all the electronically signed documents in the EHR for real-time updates, without the need for keeping a paper record. Centralising all patient documents on one digitalised platform simplifies and streamlines the hospital procedures, allowing healthcare professionals to access the latest patient information on any device connected to the hospital network.

 

Signing Fit Notes

If you’re off work ill for more than 7 days, you may need to submit a fit note in order to claim statutory sick pay.  This document can be obtained from your GP or hospital doctor after a medical assessment. Using an electronic signature can digitalise this process, enabling an electronic fit note to be sent to the patient’s email or straight to the employer from the GP surgery or hospital. This would reduce stress for the patient, who can then focus on taking care of themselves and recovering from their illness.

A digitalised fit note can also be useful for those who need to claim LCWRA (Limited Capability for Work and Work-Related Activity) or PIP (Personal Independent Payment), allowing them to submit their fit note electronically, a long side their other paperwork. This service could prove to be essential for those with disabilities or limited mobility, enabling claimants to email their forms rather than going to the post office or submitting documents in person.

 

Benefits of Electronic Signatures in Healthcare

 

Save Money on Printing

Whilst each trust spends a different amount on MFD (Multi-functional devices i.e. printers/ scanners) and printing, it’s clear that this is costing the NHS hundreds of thousands of pounds each year.  In 2018, The Mid Yorkshire NHS Trust spent £179,496 on paper alone, a cost that could be virtually eliminated if the Trust became fully digitalised with the help of electronic signatures. Reducing expenditure on printing frees up much needed funds that could be spent elsewhere in the NHS, like investing in more staff, new equipment, and other resources.

 

Spend More Time With Patients

Streamlining paperwork with electronic signatures enables healthcare professionals to spend more time on patient care. No one trains as a doctor, nurse, or healthcare assistant to spend hours of their shift filling in paperwork-they do it to care for and treat patients. Electronic signatures can reduce the time spent on paperwork, increasing efficiency and productivity in GP surgeries and hospitals, allowing healthcare professionals to give a better quality of care to patients.

 

Going Green                                                                  

Going paperless not only saves time and money but also could help save our environment. Digitalisation helps to reduce waste and conserve resources, which is ultimately better for the planet. Think of all the trees that could be saved if NHS Trusts across the country succeeded in going paperless!

 

Centralise Documentation 

In January 2020, Matt Hancock noted that “two thirds of all the patient data held by hospital trusts is generated and held in disorganised form, as freeform electronic documents or scanned letters or pdfs.” Electronic signatures have the potential to improve data organisation by eliminating the need for scanning and filing, helping to centralise patient documentation in one place and making it easier to search for relevant documents.

 

Better Patient Experience

Electronic signatures not only streamline paperwork for medical professionals but also for patients. From fit notes to prescriptions, digitalisation has the potential to make life significantly easier for patients, especially those with disabilities or limited mobility. What’s more, with better organised records, healthcare professionals and administrators can provide a smoother patient experience and focus on providing the best care possible.

 

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