“Paperless office” was first coined in 1975 by BusinessWeek. and involves transferring all documents to a digital filing system and using a computer screen to view them. Despite the technological limitations of the time, forecasting a paperless future appeared to be a safe bet – personal computers were clearly going to have a vast impact on business. However, more than thirty years later, few offices have managed to make the leap to a paperless environment.
Despite the apparently slow adoption of this practice by businesses worldwide, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, recently announced the National Health Service’s (NHS) plan to ‘go paperless,’ with estimated annual savings of up to 5 billion GBP as a result of the move. As the largest employer of personnel in Europe (and 5th largest in the world), with an annual budget of more than 100 billion GBP, the NHS provides an excellent model in analyzing some of the benefits of moving to a paperless environment. Below are just a few of the advantages or results of making such a change:
While physically searching for a file locked away in a cabinet can take hours, especially when multiple files are needed, a computer search can locate words and terms on all documents in a matter of seconds, displaying all related results in a tidy interface.
In the case of the NHS, the benefits of increased speed and accessibility are numerous. A centralized database of patient records will allow general practitioners (GPs), hospital staff, and paramedics to instantly review a new patient’s records. For example, under the proposed system, if a patient has a heart condition on which their GP has extensive data, hospital staff all over the country will be able to access this data without the need to repeat various tests, or demand information the patient may not have readily available. Medical professionals will be able to review a person’s complete medical history, no matter where their prior treatments may have taken place. “The vision I’m thinking of,” said Hunt at a press conference launching the initiative, “is an ambulance driver answering a 999 call…look[ing] up a patient’s medical record on their way to their home, so they’ll find out the person they are going to see is a diabetic who had two falls last year, who has a heart condition.”
Although it’s estimated that as little as 10% of global paper supplies are sourced from old growth forests, with the rest coming from new-growth forests specifically planted to be made into pulp, paper production still causes significant harm to the environment. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and carbon dioxide (CO2) are all by-products of paper production, and according to the American Forest & Paper Association, paper manufacturing is the third largest consumer of fossil fuels on the planet. It goes without saying, the less paper, the better.
With regard to the NHS, a less invasive form of completing paperwork (or less paperwork altogether, due to a centralized database of patient information) will serve to create a better overall environment for hospital staff and patients alike. Staff-to-patient relations are less likely to be as strained as they currently are when less forms and paperwork need to be signed and completed.
Not only will your company save money on buying paper, printers, ink, toners, filing cabinets, and many more paper-related items, moreover, as detailed in the section on efficiency, eliminating time consuming physical searches holds the potential to save thousands of man-hours.
A paperless NHS, according to Hunt, “more importantly…can save billions of hours of time so nurses can spend more time with patients.” Not only that, “it can save thousands of lives,” Hunt continues. “A lot of the safety problems in the NHS – people being prescribed with the wrong medication, and ‘never events’ where people have the wrong arm amputated – it’s wrong to say technology is the panacea but it can make a big, big difference.”
Taking an organization as immense as the NHS into a new, paperless era will no doubt be a tremendous undertaking, but will also act as a road map for other organizations looking to accomplish the same goal. If even a fraction of the 5 Billion GBP per year savings target is met, then organizations around the world will need to look at the NHS model, learn from its mistakes, and implement its successes as swiftly as possible, or risk wasting precious time, money, and resources.
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