Connecting for Health pulls speakers from Europe's largest healthcare IT conference at Harrogate

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NHS Connecting for Health, which runs the NHS's National Programme for IT NPfIT], has withdrawn its speakers from Europe's biggest annual IT health conference at Harrogate.

The agency, which is part of the Department of Health, is under political pressure to improve its communications and engagement with the health service, which suggests its speakers would want to be at the HC2007 Healthcare computing conference in force.

But two weeks before the conference and exhibition, the three speakers from Connecting for Health have been withdrawn.

They are Richard Granger, Director General for NHS IT, Richard Jeavons, senior responsible owner for service implementation and Sir Muir Gray, director of clinical knowledge, process and safety for NHS Connecting for Health.

Two of the three, Richard Granger and Richard Jeavons, are in the "top team" at Connecting for Health. The withdrawal of Sir Muir Gray from Harrogate is particularly awkward for the British Computer Society which sponsors the HC2007 conference programme. Sir Muir Gray has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the British Computer Society for his outstanding contribution to health informatics.

The withdrawal of the three may hit the finances of the conference, since some delegates may have attended the conference mainly to hear the Connecting for Health speakers. The standard rate for three-day attendance is £425 per delegate.

There is also said to be concern among some of those involved in the event that although Local Service Providers including BT and Fujitsu will be exhibiting at Harrogate they will be keeping a lower advertising and sponsorship profile than some other suppliers, which may not be good news for the event's finances.

But Local Service Providers to the NPfIT denied that they were limiting their profile, advertising spend and sponsorship at the conference.

It is not clear why Connecting for Health has withdrawn its top people at such short notice. There is speculation that some health officials are irritated by the strong links between the British Computer Society and 23 academics who have written an open letter calling for an independent review of the NPfIT. The academics have much information on the NPfiT on their wiki, comprising published and original material.

There is also some speculation that health officials are concerned about a paper published by the British Computer Society's Health Informatics Forum Strategic Panel in December 2006.

The paper "The Way Forward for NHS Health Informatics" contained much praise for the NPfIT and the work of Connecting for Health. It made it clear that the BCS wants the NPfIT to succeed. The paper also made some points that Connecting for Health may have found unendearing, an assertion for example that political pressure has caused health officials to "deny problems and to defend the indefensible".

Other such tell-it-like-it-is points from the report of the British Computer Society:

- "Put implementation of the Personal Spine Information System [personal health record] on hold

- "While the NPfIT has delivered a number of local operational systems including PACS [x-ray systems called Picture Archiving and Communications Systems] PAS [patient administration systems], and some Community Health and departmental systems, it is possible that at least similar levels of delivery could have been achieved by the processes that were in place prior to the NPfIT...

- "In the area of acute electronic patient record, NPfIT has majored on patient administration replacement and this has reduced the number of acute electronic patient record systems that would have been implemented had the NPfIT not existed.

- "Viewing NPfIT as just an IT project as its name implies has led to implementation plans that have all too frequently ranged from the optimistic to the unreal.

- "Overall, the net deliverables of the NPfIT have been limited considering the scale of what was planned. The NPfIT has been successful in limiting payment for non-delivery, but having under spent because of not delivering is hardly a success and the central costs incurred by NHS CFH are such that, so far, the value for money from services deployed is poor."

But the authors ensured their report was balanced. Indeed they concluded that the NPfIT is changing for the better. "All parties face failure unless the Department of Health takes the opportunity to realign the NPfIT with a more realistic business-based informatics strategy. NHS Connecting for Health and Local Service Providers seem to be moving towards recognising that future IT services will have to be built by creating a framework in which a wider range of heterogeneous systems can share information and workflows and in which existing systems and existing system suppliers will play a greater part."

Computer Weekly asked Connecting for Health about the withdrawal of its speakers and also whether its officials were unhappy about the British Computer Society's continued concerns over aspects of the NPfIT.

It declined to give any answer on the question about whether it was unhappy with the British Computer Society's criticisms.

We also put it to Connecting for Health that, given the criticisms of its lack of engagement and poor communications, wasn't it incumbent on CfH to make sure its speakers were at what some regard as the UK's foremost healthcare IT conference?

In a written response a spokesman for Connecting for Health said:

"NHS Connecting for Health will be represented at the Harrogate conference by our most senior representative - the Minister responsible for the NPfIT, Lord Philip Hunt. It is also my understanding that we will have some representation at BCS's summer conference in June. We do have a commitment to engage with the NHS and its staff on the ground and our emphasis will be on making sure with limited resources that we do this in the most effective way. We will share these plans with you more widely in the future."

Separately, in conversation, the spokesman confirmed that speakers specifically from Connecting for Health will not be attending. "We won't be speaking at this event but there is a commitment to attend the [BCS's] Primary Healthcare Specialist Group meeting at Oxfordshire in June," he said.

But, we asked, isn't Harrogate the UK's main healthcare IT event?

"The reason [we are not attending] is because we are very aware that we need to commit our limited resources to communicating more broadly across the NHS...

"We have a plan which we will share with you at some stage about how we direct our limited resources to the most effective way of communicating across the whole NHS."

So is it correct, we asked, that Connecting for Health pulled the three speakers because its people have only limited time and resources?

"Yes effectively. We want to make sure we channel those resources in the most effective ways. That means there will be other instances where we can get to a much broader range of people. You will be aware that a lot of the criticism of the programme is that we don't engage with doctors and nurses on the ground. We really want to try and make sure we do that in a more effective way."

Is Connecting for Health aware that pulling its speakers may have a financial impact on the conference? "I am not aware. I cannot answer that question off the top of my head. I'll have to go back to see whether people are aware of that."

The spokesman has not yet replied on this.

The British Computer Society declined to comment.

Footnote: An NHS Connecting for Health speaker has withdrawn unexpectedly from another event. This raises questions about whether the agency will focus in future only on communications and engagement with doctors and nurses, or whether the withdrawal of speakers is part of the central organisation's plans to reduce or wind down its activities. An announcement may be made by Lord Hunt at the Harrogate HC2007 conference.

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