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It’s never a quiet year in the world of NHS IT, but 2016 saw perhaps one of the biggest stories of the decade – although perhaps not the biggest surprise. NHS England decided to pull the plug on its controversial and, quite frankly, disastrous, Care.data programme.
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The saga of NHS 24’s IT system also continued throughout 2016, while Leeds Teaching Hospitals suffered an IT outage and Doncaster and Bassetlaw had some computer equipment stolen. It’s not all been bad news though. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt promised £4bn for NHS IT and free Wi-Fi is going to be rolled out across the NHS. With positive moves on the horizon as the NHS ramps up to deliver a paperless NHS, 2017 could be a brilliant year for the digital agenda.
Here are some of Computer Weekly’s top NHS IT stories of 2016
Perhaps unsurprisingly, NHS England decided to finally scrap its controversial Care.data programme this year. The scheme, which aims to extract anonymised patient data from GP surgeries to a central database held by the Health and Social Care Information Centre, has been under heavy scrutiny since its inception, and has continued to face backlash from the public and privacy campaigners.
After national data guardian for health and care Fiona Caldicott asked the government to consider the future of the programme, it axed it in July 2016, following the programme being put on hold half a dozen times.
The long-awaited review of NHS IT by US-based professor Robert Wachter wasn’t too kind in its predictions for the future of NHS IT. In fact, it went as far as stating that NHS England’s goal of a paperless NHS at the point of care by 2020 was potentially unachievable.
Instead of the 2020 goal, Wachter’s review of NHS technology recommended 2023, as the current goal is “likely to fail”. He also called for additional funding to support the digital drive in the NHS. The 2023 target is a long way from the original “paperless by 2018” aim, which was later revised to 2020.
NHS Wi-Fi campaigners were surely happy this year, as the NHS finally committed to implementing free Wi-Fi to patients in all secondary care providers, such as acute hospitals, by 2018. Primary care facilities, such as GPs, will follow by March 2019.
Although Martha Lane-Fox recommended that the NHS moved forward with free Wi-Fi, the actual decision is a big milestone for an organisation filled with estates where Wi-Fi is known for being notoriously bad. Another issue is that many NHS hospitals are locked into contracts with suppliers of entertainment systems, which often include pay-for Wi-Fi, meaning that each secondary care provider would need a bespoke system.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is rarely complementary of large, government-run IT projects, and the GP Extraction Service is no exception. In January 2016, a PAC report branded the project a failure. The scheme, which was set up by the Department of Health and the now-defunct NHS Information Centre (NHS IC) to collect data from the clinical systems of 8,000 GP practices in England, was originally due to start in 2010.
The project planned to use the data for things like quality management and Care.data, but has yet to get off the ground, with only two of the eight organsiations identified as users of the service actually receiving any data.
Costs have also risen from £14m to £40m without a full service being provided, said the report. “Once again, we see a failure in a government IT project at huge cost to the taxpayer,” said PAC chair Meg Hillier.
While austerity is high on the agenda in most NHS organisations, which are all struggling to make ends meet, health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced a £4.2bn investment in a paperless NHS earlier in 2016.
The money, he said, will be spent on apps, Wi-Fi, cyber security and electronic patient records over the next five years, and available through different funding streams.
Although not all of this is new money – some £1bn was already announced in the 2015 autumn statement – it’ll do well for cash-strapped NHS trusts.
In April, a former NHS IT worker at Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust was convicted of stealing computer equipment from the trust, which he later sold on eBay.
He was discovered after the NHS Protect Fraud and Corruption Reporting line received a tip he was stealing. The investigation then found that the computers he had auctioned off on eBay matched the ones used by the trust.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 250 hours of community service, on top of having to pay £5000 in compensation to the trust.
NHS 24, the special Scottish health board which delivers telephone and advice services, has again delayed the full roll-out of its new IT system until December 2017 – more than four years after the original go-live date. The health board went live with a new system in October 2015, but was later forced to suspend the system on the grounds of patient safety.
The delay has also meant costs have spiralled. From a project originally estimated to cost £75.8m, the total cost is now estimated to be £131.2m – a mind-blowing 73% over budget.
NHS Digital has spent a lot of time this year trying to ramp up cyber security skills in the healthcare sector.
The organisation is helping NHS organisations respond to breaches through its computer emergency response team, CareCert, and is deploying an online information portal for trusts to use. In September 2016, Rob Shaw, chief operating officer at NHS Digital’s Data Security Centre, said the work will also include working closely with the National Cyber Security Centre.
Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust faced a media storm when its pathology IT systems crashed, resulting in cancelled operations. The trust’s pathology IT systems, which are used to report and process test results, experienced problems over several weeks, leading to 113 patients having their operations cancelled.
The problems were caused by a hardware failure, and the systems were forrtunately back up and running after a few weeks.
While the NHS is ramping up its use of patient apps, the supporting evidence of its success is lacking.
A report from think tank the Nuffield Trust found that while tech could generally have a positive impact, there are many pitfalls such as lack of regulation around apps which can lead to potential “patient harm and significant disruption”. However, technology can also help people stay healthy and out of hospital, especially those managing long-term conditions.