Opinion

Thought for the day: Will IT spend cure the NHS?

Simon Moores  
The government's IT modernisation programme for the NHS, the National Programme for IT, is going to cost a fortune but who will benefit? asks Simon Moores

 

 

 

Why should anyone be surprised at Computer Weekly’s prediction that the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) could cost the taxpayer more than the Channel Tunnel?

Just to remind you briefly the NHS is the second or third largest employer in the world - somewhere between the Chinese People’s Army and the Indian State Railway. But at least they don't have waiting lists.

The NPfIT is the largest civil computer project in the world yet the UK government has an abysmal record for delivering large computer projects.

The programme was launched to help to reform a progressively failing health service by using IT as a key theme or magic wand - take your choice - in joining up relevant health and social care operations. The NPfIT will become an Executive Agency for three to five years and will incorporate the IT infrastructure functions of the NHS Information Authority (NHSIA) which will disappear.

I’m struck by the breathtaking scale of the numbers talked about for the NPfIT. They represent a touching belief in the ability of public sector suppliers to deliver efficient, fully joined-up health services, on time and on budget.

The NHS budget has risen from £33bn to £67.4bn, with average spending per head of population showing a 50% increase from £680 to £1,345. The NPfIT is a £6bn spending spree on four core projects: a universal system for electronic medical records, a hospital appointments system, a broadband infrastructure and e-prescriptions. The diagnostic imaging contract is worth £196m; the national patient record database will cost £620m to build and the national electronic patient records system will be worth £2.3bn by 2010.

The Computer Weekly/Kew IT Expenditure Report  predicts the NPfIT will push NHS IT spending growth up by 61% in 2004 to nearly £3bn. In stark contrast the average growth in IT spending for the UK as a whole is 8.4% for the year.

Such a dramatic increase in the amount of government money washing around the IT industry rather explains why companies across Europe are queuing up to introduce their own products and services to the NPfIT. However, they might have to wait until they are invited to the table by the small group of suppliers who hold the lion's share of the projects.

Computer Weekly predicts that the NPfIT will be like the Scottish Parliament building in terms of cost overruns and project delay, costing as much as £18.6bn before it’s finished. So the increased level of optimism across the UK IT industry is understandable. My own concern is that this represents a false economy and one the UK can hardly afford.

I want the NPfIT to succeed because like everyone else I’m sick of having to negotiate my way through an overworked and often inefficient health service.

What I’m lacking is confidence in the interoperability of solutions and in the companies that are promising to deliver them. Finally what I most fear is that, like the Scottish Parliament building, costs will steadily rise leaving the government trapped between a rock and a hard place, as the awful truth slowly dawns on the Treasury.

Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.

Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies, and specialises in the areas of e-government and information security.

For further information on Zentelligence and its research, presentation and analyst services, visit www.zentelligence.com

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This was first published in October 2004

 

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