Government underestimates need for IT managers in NHS

The Government could be underestimating the need for highly qualified and experienced IT management at local level to make its...

The Government could be underestimating the need for highly qualified and experienced IT management at local level to make its proposed NHS IT upgrade programme work, according to BCS experts, writes John Kavanagh.

"While we have no doubt that effective IT can both significantly reduce medical errors and improve patient care, we see some issues to achieving this which are not being fully addressed by the Department of Health's recently published strategy," says Glyn Hayes, chairman of the BCS Health Informatics Committee and a former GP.

The BCS says the current proposals centre on establishing a director general of IT who will set up preferred-supplier consortia using big, mainly US companies and combine facilities management with specialist applications from current NHS IT suppliers.

But the BCS warns against simply providing systems without allowing for significant local user involvement in introducing them.

A real problem comes from NHS staff's lack of awareness of the real potential of IT, plus a lack of enthusiasm and even fear of IT systems, the BCS says. It believes this common problem, found in many industries, can only be resolved by education and training.

Hayes says there is "a patchy information culture in the NHS". "Trust boards frequently hand IT over to finance departments, and a natural result is emphasis on the management of resources rather than direct patient care," he explains.

"Although the new strategy proposes the appointment of chief information officers at strategic heath authority level - which we very much welcome - we feel that qualified, experienced IT managers also need to be employed at the individual trust board level to have the necessary impact on day-to-day care.

"In addition to handling day-to-day IT management issues, this would send out the message that information is key to reducing patient damage and improving individual patient care, and is very important to each NHS trust."

The BCS says it recognises the "significant successes" in NHS IT so far, and is concerned that these could be lost in the new approach. These successes include primary care computing, where it says the UK leads the world; several acute sector initiatives; and all areas where an information culture has clearly been nurtured. These are excellent examples for the future, the BCS says.

"When a major programme like this is announced, there is always a risk that existing initiatives lose their development focus while new processes are discussed and put in place," the society says. "The BCS sincerely hopes this does not happen to the excellent work done in these areas to date."

The BCS Health Informatics Committee would like to see wider consultation on the programme; the sponsoring of a corporate knowledge culture and the use of previous experience across the NHS; inclusion of lessons from developments outside the NHS in England; and local priorities for tailoring systems within a national framework.

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