The future of the NHS's £12.7bn computer programme was in doubt last night after its managers acknowledged further delays in introducing a system for the electronic storage and transmission of patients' records.
Connecting for Health, the NHS agency responsible for the world's biggest civil IT project, said it was no longer possible to give a date when hospitals in England will start using the sophisticated software that is required to keep track of patients' medical files.
Christine Connelly, the Department of Health's recently appointed head of informatics, is understood to be reviewing whether the programme is a cost-effective way of improving the quality and safety of patient care.
She will have to find compelling arguments to stop the Treasury earmarking health service IT as a candidate for cuts to compensate for the billions spent on the bailout of the banks. However, the high cost of cancelling contracts with IT suppliers may be a factor saving the programme from cancellation.
In May the National Audit Office said the project was running at least four years late, but still appeared to be feasible. It has since been beset by a series of further setbacks.
The agency fired Fujitsu, the contractor responsible for building the patient record system in the south of England. It asked BT to take over the work, but has not yet agreed a price.
In London, attempts to install the system at the Royal Free hospital and Barts caused weeks of confusion and disruption. Other trusts that were next in line were so alarmed that they pleaded for postponement.
In the north, the first installation of the Lorenzo version of the software at Morecambe Bay was repeatedly delayed.
A Connecting for Health spokesman said parts of the programme are working well, with doctors and patients already noticing the benefits.
But he added: "The programme is one of the largest IT change programmes in the world and it is inevitable that such transformation will present challenges." The testing of the Lorenzo system was "identifying technical issues which are being resolved on an ongoing basis." All the organisations involved "recognise the need to achieve the necessary quality criteria for go-live and view this as more important than a particular date."
In London, the NHS was "taking stock" and learning from the first attempts to install BT's Cerner Millennium system.
A spokesman for NHS London said: "Meetings will be taking place over the next couple of weeks with trusts to discuss the implementation dates and [we] hope to have revised dates as soon as possible." The trusts would have "more time to plan and prepare for an implementation which will benefit from the experience of the earlier deployments".
Jon Hoeksma, editor of E-Health Insider, a website that has specialised in tracking Connecting for Health, said: "Contracts [for the patient care record] were let in 2003 and they were supposed to be completed by 2010. But the best estimates now are that the software will not be ready until well into the next decade.
"The programme may not have come to a complete halt, but it is not gaining the necessary momentum. If anything, momentum is dissipating.
"Something has to give. The programme can't just keep saying: give us another three months, give us another three months."
The journal Computer Weekly said it obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act showing how St Mary's NHS trust in London repeatedly postponed introducing the patient record.
Minutes of a St Mary's executive meeting said: "There were huge risks to implementation, as experienced in other trusts such as Barts and the London and the Royal Free."
In 2002 Tony Blair approved a scheme to spend billions of pounds on an IT system for the NHS in England, convinced by cutting edge firms that lives would be saved if doctors and nurses could have instant electronic access to patients' medical notes. Blair authorised a scheme to upload a summary of the records held by GPs on 50 million patients into a national database, known as the Spine. After a Guardian campaign in 2006, the Department of Health agreed to allow patients to opt out if they feared their files might be leaked or misused. The NHS, which is cautiously trialling Spine, wanted to make haste with another sophisticated system for hospitals to store and transmit detailed information about every patient treated. Nobody seems to know when or if hospitals will get kit that does what Blair was led to expect.
No responsibility can be taken for the content of external Internet sites.
Return to internet news headlines
View Internet News Archive