NHS IT needs better care than the unlamented National Programme

At Computer Weekly, we’ve loved the NHS National Programme for IT (NPfIT), it’s been such a great source of articles and of ideas for these leader columns in its long existence. Of course, the truth is that we wish we hadn’t been given cause to write about it quite as often as we have. For the NPfIT, no news would have been good news, because it has generated more than enough bad news.

The hugely critical National Audit Office (NAO) report last week has driven yet another stake into the barely beating heart of this particular terminal patient. The Department of Health continues to insist the £6.4bn spent so far on the programme has been value for money – and perhaps if you were to concentrate only on the success stories, such as the PACS digital X-ray and imaging system, that would be true. But when the NAO says it has “no grounds for confidence” about the £4.3bn planned spend remaining on electronic care records, and questions whether the project should be scrapped forthwith, then “value for money” becomes a point of political opinion.

We’ve been here so often before. NPfIT is “yet another example of a department fundamentally underestimating the scale and complexity of a major IT-enabled change programme,” according to NAO chief Amyas Morse. And that has been the over-riding challenge that the NHS never got to grips with – the sheer scale of the project proved as over-ambitious as many experts warned.

So what next? If the NHS is to reduce bureaucracy and cut costs, it has little choice but to streamline and IT-enable administration. Furthermore, can you really imagine an NHS in 2020 that doesn’t have electronic patient records as standard? What would that say about our modern health service?

NPfIT is over in all but name. Localism is the new buzzword, and NHS IT managers are already being given greater autonomy, regardless of what is said about those huge central contracts. The National Programme may have flatlined, but IT in the NHS lives on and needs better care than this unlamented mega-project.