England is on track to becoming the first country in the world to enable all health service patients online access to their own medical records, the health secretary has said.
As the climax to his speech to the Conservative Party conference, Jeremy Hunt, who took over as health secretary in 2012, announced: "Today I can confirm that by April next year, every patient in England will be able to access their own medical record online - the first country in the world to take this huge step."
The target itself is not new - it was set out in a strategy document, The Power of Information, which was published in 2012. However by stressing the date, just before the general election, Hunt showed a new boldness - or desperation. IT firms, including the leading GP supplier Emis, have begun to offer the necessary technology. However take-up remains low: a YouGov poll published last month by Emis showed that 71% of patients did not realise the technology exists to let them view their record.
Hunt told the conference that access to records was a big step to empowering patients. "It means you will no longer have to pay to access your medical record. You'll be able to see it and show it to anyone you choose. You'll find it easier to do detailed research about your condition and easier to challenge decisions. Because the boss is not the doctor - it's you."
Elsewhere in his speech, Hunt stressed the need for integrated health and social care information, recalling an experience in an A&E department last year. "A 90-year-old lady with dementia was brought in by ambulance after a fall in her care home. She was completely motionless. She couldn't talk. She couldn't feed herself or even drink a glass of water.
"What made it worse was that in that A & E we knew next to nothing about her. We didn't have her medical record. We didn't know her allergies. We didn't know if she was normally able to talk or whether it was just because of the fall. How could we possibly give her the personal care she desperately needed?" He said the first step to personal care is the integration of the health and social care systems.
Hunt also stressed the programme of opening NHS data. "We don't give people enough information. So this summer we became the first country in the world to publish detailed information about safety, waiting times, patient experience and food for every major hospital. And on the new MyNHS website we'll go further," he said.