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NHS IT costs spiral

NHS IT costs spiral

The final cost of the NHS National Programme for IT could rise to £30bn - three to five times the declared figure, came the warning from Department of Health yesterday.

It is the first time that this inflated sum has been acknowledged, and follows evidence of mounting concern among NHS managers that the costs of running the new IT system would eat into eat into funds originally meant for patient care.

The ten-year IT programme announced two years ago, plans to give 50 million patients in England an electronic health record.

If everything runs smoothly, the idea is to enable doctors to access information about a patient, via their record, whether they are at their local GP surgery or at a hospital at the other end of the country.

Patients should also be able to book appointments and operations using an electronic booking system.

The extra costs admitted by the Department of Health last night are for running the equipment once it is installed, including the employment of IT staff and retraining clinicians to use it.

The new NHS computer network is likely to feature in Labour's general election manifesto.

The first equipment is starting to arrive in hospitals and GP surgeries to create an electronic booking system for patients. It will be followed next year by electronic patient records, and a programme for electronic transfer of prescriptions has recently been brought forward.

Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable told Computer Weekly: "Local health trusts will be forced to make very difficult decisions to support the national programme with local funding.

"This could mean cuts in other frontline services if the project is to be delivered. The future success of the NHS depends on this project."

The National Audit Office, which independently audits government departments, announced in August that it would investigate this project much earlier than it usually does to see if this was so.

Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "The NAO's unusual decision to investigate the programme at this early stage is entirely appropriate given the fears we have that it will fall short of expectations and cost considerably more than originally anticipated."

"The government needs to be transparent about where the extra costs will fall, as many health trusts are currently in deficit and would struggle to find money for a centrally imposed project of this scale, without seriously cutting local service delivery."

Dr John Williams, an IT spokesman for the Royal College of General Practitioners, welcomed the National Audit Office investigation.

He said apart from the tendency for such projects to over-run and over-spend, GPs were also worried about the safe transfer of patient records to the new national computer system.

The Department of Health's acknowledgment of the £15bn-£30bn price tag came in response to a report in today's Computer Weekly suggesting the cost of the IT programme could rise to £18.6bn.

A department spokesman said: "It is generally accepted in the IT industry that implementation costs are some 3-5 times the cost of procurements and this is reflected in the business case that was made for the (NHS) national programme."

"Whilst significant financial benefits will accrue from the national programme, other benefits will be seen in improvements to NHS services, therefore improving patient care and safety."

Sources: BBC Online, The Guardian, The Register

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