The Department of Health has conceded that it is using hospital appointments booked by telephone in official figures that indicate a rapid take-up of Choose and Book, a key component of the NHS' national programme for IT.
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The NHS Improvement Plan published in June 2004, which contains a foreword by the prime minister Tony Blair, said there would be "100%" electronic booking of hospital appointments by December 2005.
Giving patients the ability to pre-book appointments from a choice of four or five hospitals or health providers by the end of 2005 is one of the government's top 10 priorities for the NHS.
To support this, Connecting for Health, an agency of the Department of Health, has awarded a contract to Atos Origin for the delivery of a national booking system.
The objective was for GPs, when seeing patients, to look up available slots for hospital appointments on their PCs and make a booking there and then. Electronic booking was due to have been rolled out and implemented across the NHS by the end of this year.
But the reliability of the Choose and Book system has been questioned by several trusts, and few hospitals have compatible equipment that allows GPs to book appointments online. The result is that some GPs are giving patients a print-out with the name and number of a hospital to ring to make an appointment.
In its statistics for the use of Choose and Book, the Department of Health makes no distinction between telephone-only and fully electronic bookings. This may make it hard to assess the value for money, take-up and usefulness of Choose and Book systems.
At first officials told Computer Weekly the statistics entirely comprised "fully-electronic" appointments.
After further questioning, the Department of Health confirmed that its statistics include "telephone-only" bookings.
In June there had been fewer than 1,500 bookings under Choose and Book. But last week a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said, "The total number of bookings, as at end of play on 26 October 2005, was 20,297, and that includes all kinds of bookings, including telephone-only."
This is still a long way short of the target of about 10 million bookings a year.