NHS staff ‘must be involved’ in IT upgrade

The government has made “significant progress” in its £20 billion IT programme for the NHS, but its benefits must be better explained to staff, the public spending watchdog has warned.

In a new report, the National Audit Office (NAO) says that while the aims of the national programme for IT are supported by NHS workers, many are concerned about delays to its implementation and about what practical benefits it will bring.

This is particularly important given the costs of the scheme, which include £3.4 billion from the IT budgets of local NHS trusts over the next ten years – a large investment at the best of times, but particularly difficult for those dealing with million-pound deficits.

The ten-year programme intends to introduce electronic patient record, appointment and prescription services into the NHS, along with new email systems and broadband access for all health service staff.

While the NAO praises the Department of Health and Connecting for Health, which runs the project, for the quick and efficient way contracts were given out, it notes there have been delays in some parts and this has led to concern among NHS staff.

As of April this year, the new NHS email system was being used by 80,000 people in the NHS, the choose and book system was in 12 per cent of hospital appointment bookings and electronic prescriptions were used in 15 per cent of GP surgeries.

But a key part of the reforms, the NHS care records scheme aimed at providing access to patients’ medical records across the health service, is running two years late, while the take-up of the choose and book system is slower than predicted.

As a result, the NAO says “significant challenges” remain, in particular in ensuring IT contractors do not fall any further behind schedule, and ensuring all NHS organisations play their part.

In particular, the watchdog calls on the government to provide clearer leadership about when all the different elements of the programme will be introduced and how this timetable will affect individual staff.

A BBC survey last month found widespread disillusionment among doctors, with 34 per cent of GPs and 11 per cent of hospital doctors wanting to scrap the programme and just two per cent and three per cent respectively saying it was a good use of NHS funds.

Yesterday, Dr Hamish Meldrum of British Medical Association (BMA) warned there were “too many delays, too many problems” with the choose and book system, leading to even the most enthusiastic supporters questioning what its benefits were.

Today’s report notes the programme’s “scope, vision and complexity is wider and more extensive than any ongoing or planned healthcare IT programme in the world”, and says that if properly implemented, it has the potential to bring real benefits for patients.

And auditor general John Bourn concludes: “Substantial progress has been made with the National Programme for IT.[which] promises to revolutionise the way in which the NHS uses information to improve services and patient care.

“But significant challenges remain for the department and NHS Connecting for Health.”