Since the government's £2.3bn plan to overhaul NHS IT was unveiled last year, industry observers have puzzled over how the Department of Health will get doctors to use the new systems. As an answer, the department has launched a project to get medical professionals involved.
The challenge is clear. Earlier this year Computer Weekly commissioned a survey by medical research specialist Medix UK which highlighted doctors' lack of involvement in the national programme to overhaul NHS IT. Only 7% of more than 1,000 doctors and consultants questioned said they possessed adequate information about the plan, and 32% had not even heard about it prior to taking part in the study.
Understandably, the Department of Health wants to remedy this situation. A spokesman for the national programme said, "We are engaging with NHS clinicians and managers on a number of fronts. We have a core team of clinicians in the National Design Authority who are actively working on the outline specification for the Integrated Care Records Service.
"Anthony Nowlan [director of stakeholder relations at the NHS Information Authority] has established a review network of 100 clinicians, including both clinical and professional groups."
The ICRS is at the heart of the NHS IT overhaul. One of its key functions will be to store millions of electronic patient records.
Former health minister Lord Hunt and Frank Burns, chief executive of Wirral Hospitals NHS Trust, are just two of the figures who have highlighted the importance of getting doctors on board.
Hunt, who was in charge of the national IT programme until he resigned from the government last month, raised his concerns in an issue of Health Service Journal. "My greatest fear is that we will not get doctors on board," he said.
The initial signs, at least, are that the government is moving in the right direction. Peter Hutton, chairman of the Academy of Medical Colleges, which represents more than 90,000 doctors in the UK, has put his weight behind the government's attempt to drag NHS IT into the 21st century.
The national programme spokesman said, "Hutton is co-ordinating input to the ongoing consultation and specification for the 'national data spine', which is part of the ICRS, from a working group of representatives from across all the medical and royal colleges. This group has already reached agreement on their input to output-based specification for the national data spine."
Grant Kelly, chairman of the British Medical Association's IT Committee, gave a cautious welcome to the government's efforts to involve clinicians. "I welcome any input from clinicians but I think the issue of the ICRS should be opened up to public consultation," he said.
Kelly believes that opening up the structure of the ICRS to consultation would help the public understand the impact of electronic patient records, which could revolutionise UK patient care. "We need to know where the electronic patient records system is taking us - that is something that has not yet reached the public consciousness," he said.
The national programme spokesman said the NHSIA is meeting with patient carer groups to improve their understanding of the ICRS.
Kelly also warned that ICRS will be difficult to implement across the NHS. "I am in favour of the concept of the ICRS but it will be hard to implement because of its complexity and the issue of data quality," he said.
Proving that the ICRS can deliver real benefits could be the key to winning the long-term support of clinicians. The Medix survey found only 27% of doctors believe the NHS IT overhaul will deliver significant improvements in patient care. "The buy-in from clinicians will be quick if the ICRS shows benefits," said Kelly.