The number of critical IT faults in the NHS has increased by 70 percent during the last three years, according to figures uncovered by the Liberal Democrats.
Last year, there were over 4,000 IT incidents affecting the NHS, health minister Ben Bradshaw detailed in a written parliamentary answer to MPs. Of those, 820 were described as "critical" or "severity one" incidents, almost double the 488 incidents in 2006.
A severity one incident is one that a system critical to patient care or impacting 5,000 NHS computer users or more. In addition, the service suffered 1,850 severity two failures in 2008.
In October 2008, the number of critical faults in national IT systems spiked sharply to 165 from 71 the previous month. According to media reports, NHS Connecting for Health attributed this spike to "a set of issues affecting two systems".
Some 91 percent of national severity one incidents and about 94 percent of severity two incidents were related to the NHS' N3 broadband network, which has 27,000 individual connections and was built by supplier BT.
NHS Connecting for Health attributed the rise in incidents to the deployment of more systems in the £12.7bn National Programme for IT (NPfIT) rollout. Better reporting mechanisms is another factor impacting results.
"Comparing the number of reported incidents in 2008 against 2006 in this way is meaningless, as the rise is the result of the deployment of more systems under the National Programme for IT and active encouragement to report incidents," an NHS Connecting for Health spokesperson told Computerworld UK.
The spokesperson said no patients had been harmed by the IT faults.
But Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat shadow health secretary, said: "There is a complete lack of transparency over what is happening. Serious IT incidents in the NHS could potentially lead to fatalities."
The NPfIT rollout, the world's largest civilian IT project that has experienced technical problems and parts of which are four years late, has drawn criticism from opposition parties. The Liberal Democrats have been highly critical of the NHS IT programme, and the Conservatives are currently conducting an independent review of the scheme. Last week, the Conservatives accused the NHS of secrecy after handing over eight new contracts to BT without conducting a full tender process.
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