The state of NHS IT? Ring a random NHS trust and see if they have IT problems - it worked for us

We’d like to let you in on a little secret.

In the past week, Computer Weekly uncovered IT problems at two NHS trusts in the north-west of London. In one, medical staff were unable to access patient information, leading to emergency cases being diverted to other hospitals. In the other, a major systems upgrade has been delayed, causing “great difficulties” for staff.

The stories originated – as many good stories do – from a Computer Weekly source. But here’s the secret – having received the tip-off, we rang up the affected NHS trust and they admitted the problems and gave us the details. It was a good story.

We then realised that, due to a rather confusing website, we had rung the wrong NHS trust. The original story was true – we rang the correct trust and they admitted to their problems too. But in effect, we randomly rang a large NHS trust, only to find they had major IT problems as well.

A happy coincidence for us, perhaps. But it also came a couple of weeks after we revealed major technology issues at a south London trust too, although those were not so recent. You can’t help but think that maybe such stories are not isolated cases.

The NHS, as everyone knows, is at a crossroads. Faced with an aging population and austerity budgets, it’s been running out of cash and in some cases patient care has suffered. The health service needs an extra £8bn a year and the government has promised to find the money.

Meanwhile, many in the NHS are waking up to the fact that technology offers huge opportunities to cut costs and transform elements of patient care. Yet we still barely have the basics in place – patchy use of electronic medical records and patient administration systems, little or no integration of records between different trusts, let alone between GPs and their local health providers.

Much of the NHS is still suffering from the legacy of the £12bn National Programme for IT that promised so much and delivered so very little. Many NHS organisations are playing catch-up, despite health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s promise of a “paperless NHS” by 2018.

If we can stumble into IT problems at one NHS trust, how many are there having similar difficulties? With so many challenges facing the NHS, technology cannot become the forgotten solution.

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