A government commitment to eliminate paper prescribing in hospitals by 2023, will not be met, with the failure being blamed in part on a lack of digital maturity.

The government had pledged that by 2024 digital, or e-prescribing, would be in place across the whole of the NHS. But a panel convened by the Commons Health and Social Care Committee has concluded that the NHS will fail in its target. As a result the Department of Health and Social Care has delayed the target by a year, now aiming for eliminating paper prescriptions by 2025.

According to the expert panel – which includes Professor Dame Jane Dacre (Chair); Sir Robert Francis KC; Professor Anita Charlesworth; Professor Stephen Peckham; Professor Emma Cave and Sir David Pearson – a number of pharmacy pledges are not being delivered as expected.

In a report published in June this year, the panel evaluated the government’s pharmacy commitments. Of the nine pledges, just two were rated as ‘good’, with five rated as ‘requires improvement’ and two – including the move to e-prescribing – rated as ‘inadequate’.

The government had said it was “on course” to eliminate paper prescribing in hospitals in November 2020, and expected 80% of hospitals to have an electronic prescribing and medicines administration (ePMA) in place by March 2021.

Now, the government has acknowledged it will not meet its 2024 target. In response to the report, it says “more work is needed” and stated that the missed target is in part due to poor digital maturity and a lack of funding.

Dreams of a paperless NHS have been around for at least a decade, with then-health secretary Jeremy Hunt in 2013 challenging the NHS to be paper-free by 2018. However, according to a survey by the BMJ in September this year, three quarters of trusts in England are still reliant on paper patient notes and drug charts.

NHS trusts the length of breadth of the country are worked hard to digitise their systems with recent successes being Herefordshire and Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust delivering its ePMA from Better Meds in just 10 weeks, and Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust deploying a new ePMA as part of its Sunrise EPR to propel it forwards with its HIMSS Stage 6 ambition. In June, Nervecentre’s ePMA went live at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, one of the least digitally mature in the country.