Another ministerial spokesperson for the NHS IT programme moves on

Caroline Flint, a Health minister and government spokeswoman on the NHS’s National Programme for IT, has been moved out of the Department of Health as part of Gordon Brown’s ministerial changes.

She becomes minister for Yorkshire and the Humber.

Caroline Flint had been a health minister since 2005 and has answered written questions on the NPfIT and defended the programme in debates in the House of Commons.

In May 2006 Caroline Flint dismissed calls by 23 leading academics in computer science for an independent review of the NPfIT. She said there had been a number of reviews already.

None of the reviews has been published, however. So it’s not possible for MPs to know whether the programme is continuing despite deep-rooted weaknesses or whether it has been independently assessed as being on course for success.

In the early 1990s, despite deep-rooted weaknesses, public money continued to be spent on Wessex Regional Health Authority’s Regional Information Systems Plan although most of the NHS trusts did not want it. The scheme was eventually cancelled.

Flint told the House of Commons in May 2006:

“The National programme is already the focus of regular and routine audit, scrutiny and review. It has been subject from its inception to the Office of Government Commerce Gateway process.

“Gateway reviews have been, and continue to be, undertaken at each of the standard stages throughout the development of every component project within the programme, and of its cluster-based deployment activity from initiation through to live running.

“A similar annual and ongoing programme of audit reviews has been, and continues to be, carried out by the Department’s internal auditors… in addition, the programme’s own quality management function undertakes a broad range of reviews and audits of specific aspects of programme, cluster and supplier activity on an ongoing basis.

“A number of independent reviews have been commissioned under contract, including one commissioned from McKinsey to inform the approach before the start of the programme, and from other suppliers to establish the value for the national health service and taxpayer achieved through the contracts and to examine specific aspects such as disaster recovery.

“Ongoing review is also encouraged by transparent discussion with key stakeholder groups including the British Medical Association and through consultation initiated by the care record development board.

“We remain confident that the technical architecture of the national programme is appropriate and will enable benefits to be delivered for patients, and value for money for the taxpayer, without further independent scrutiny.”

When in March 2007 Flint was asked by the Tory health spokesman Stephen O’Brien which groups of NHS staff will have access to the national database of medical records, she said in her reply that “in general” [my italics] only those staff who are working as part of a team that is providing a patient with care, that is, those having a legitimate relationship with the patient, will be able to see a patient’s health record.

O’ Brien also asked Flint how many times a day the care records database was accessed. Flint’s reply, which was based on briefing notes from her officials, gave no hint that a national database of 50 million medical records does not yet exist.

Caroline Flint told the House of Commons in her reply:

“On a typical working day, by the end of January 2007, the spine database, which forms the core of the NHS care records service (NHS CRS), was being accessed by around 50,000 authenticated unique users. And during the last full week of January 2007, the approximate volumes of messages processed in connection with the following systems and services were:

– “personal demographic service [a names and address database] – six and a half million

– “choose and book electronic booking service [can help appointments to be made online] – over 1.4 million

– “electronic transmission of prescriptions – half a million.”

She added: “Growth in all these volumes is rising dramatically with the increase in functionality across the NHS Care Records service and continuing roll–out of the various elements of the system, but already the spine is the world’s biggest structured health care messaging system.”

Caroline Flint was one of 14 government health spokespeople, all of whom have moved on.

Health minister Ivan Lewis – another strong supporter of the NPfIT – remains at the Department of Health.


Lord Hunt, a minister in charge of the NHS’s National Programme for IT, is reshuffled