A study by NHS LifeHouse , a London NHS R&D funded group, is to begin later this year to assess the feasibility of electronic patient smart cards is set to begin in Hillingdon, London.

The project, which aims to begin by the autumn, will look at the feasibility of issuing a smart card to all residents, which would enable them to view their own records from access points in hospitals, GP surgeries and other access points.

“We’re looking at ownership and sign-up from key stakeholders, namely the local population,” said Raied Abdul-Karima, director of IM&T at Hillingdon Primary Care Trust. Other partners will include the local hospital, social services and NHS Direct.

Assuming the working group reports in favour, Hillingdon will then become a NHS LifeHouse pilot site. “If all the partners are okay we will go ahead as a pilot possibly for the whole of London,” said Mr Abdul-Karima.

If it proceeds to implementation phase, the project will mark an important step towards demonstrating technologies and processes to achieve the NHS Plan objective to provide all patients with electronic access to their records.

A commitment to examine the use of smart cards in the NHS was made by the Labour Party in its manifesto for the 2001 general election.

Electronic cards would speed up routine consultations, safeguard confidential medical information, and provide patients with access to their own medical information. The Consumers Association recently found that one in four patients have experienced problems with medical records being unavailable or lost.

The NHS LifeHouse project aims to build secure electronic bridges between the different islands of information that exist across the NHS and give patients more say over which parts of their records can be exchanged between health professionals working in different sector.

Under the proposed Hillingdon scheme smart Cards would not hold personal confidential information, but incorporate electronic keys that will allow secure, authorised access to a patient’s record.

The study group will also examine ways of identifying card-holders including a PIN number or biometric identification such as a fingerprint. Consent and empowering patients are a major part of the project,” said Mr Abdul-Karima.

He added that electronic cards offered the potential to accelerate the development of electronic patient records, and investing in information technology to support patient care and provide better access to information by clinicians.

Hillingdon has been selected as a potential pilot site due to the fact it is a relatively discreet health community. More than 80% of the estimated 255,000 people living in Hillingdon attend GP practices within the local primary care trust and more than 85% of referrals go to Hillingdon Hospital. These demographic factors make Hillingdon an ideal area to test links between local GPs and local hospital services.

Alastair Kent, non-executive chair of NHS LifeHouse Public Engagement Group, said: “NHS LifeHouse will bring patient information together in novel ways to deliver better healthcare, world class research opportunities and improved planning of services and treatment.”