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NHS agency defends low demand for e-mail system

Tony Collins

Connecting for Health, the agency that is implementing the NHS's National Programme for IT (NPfIT), has defended the low take-up of Contact, one of the world's largest e-mail systems.

The agency says that Contact is actively used by about 65,000 of the health service's employees, compared with 25,000 who used an e-mail service run by EDS whose contract was cancelled in March 2004

After a legal dispute with EDS, the NHS paid £9m in compensation to the supplier for cancelling a contract which still had eight years left to run. One of the reasons given by health officials for cancelling EDS's contract was the low take-up of the e-mail service. Cable and Wireless now runs the Contact e-mail system under a contract worth between £50m and £90m.

Although Contact allows clinicians to send sensitive patient information securely around the UK, so far there has been limited demand, in part because trusts already have established local e-mail systems. Part of the business case for Contact relies on the savings arising from replacing local e-mail with the national system.

But trust IT directors contacted by Computer Weekly said that clinical staff preferred using local systems in which they have established distribution lists.

About one in five IT staff interviewed by Mori as part of its survey of NHS attitudes to the NPfIT had an unfavourable view of Contact.

One NHS employee has written to Conservative shadow health ministers claiming that Contact may end up as a "complete waste of time and effort".

A spokesman for Connecting for Health said a "full marketing campaign is due to start in October 2005" to encourage NHS employees to use the Contact system.

He said, "At the time the EDS service was terminated 25,000 users were active on the service. Currently over 65,000 users are active on the Contact service - despite no active marketing having taken place."

The Contact directory is one of the largest in the world containing over one million e-mail addresses from every NHS organisation and region.

The spokesman said the low profile of Contact, as revealed in the Mori survey, was "entirely consistent with the decision taken not to market Contact until the product was well established technically and the supplier and NHS had agreed a robust value-for-money proposition for migrating staff on to the service."

 

Survey 'rings alarm bells'

Andrew Murrison, Tory shadow health minister and a former GP, has renewed his call for an independent review of the NHS's National Programme for IT [NPfIT]. He says a recent survey by Mori of the attitude of NHS staff to the NPfIT "rings alarm bells".

The Mori survey was commissioned by Connecting for Health, which delivers the NPfiT. It showed there was strong support for the aims of the NPfIT among those who were aware of the programme.

But Murrison said the survey also revealed a "serious lack of awareness" together with concerns about the costs of implementation.

Murrison said, "I am alarmed by the patchy awareness among frontline staff revealed by this survey. Unless staff are fully engaged with Connecting for Health it stands every chance of joining the long list of government IT disasters."


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