Few IT professionals can claim to have worked on a project that touches the lives of millions of people, or, indeed, an initiative that has been described as "the IT challenge of the decade".
Last year the Government launched Delivering 21st Century IT Support for the NHS, its long-term plan to build a modern technology infrastructure across the NHS, which is one of the largest and most complex organisations in the world.
The recruitment push to provide the IT expertise behind the strategy has now begun, with the Department of Health recently advertising for a range of positions based in Leeds and Birmingham to help to underpin the national programme. The successful candidates will be employed by the NHS Information Authority, an authority established to improve patient care and provide national products, services and standards for information in the health service.
As predicted in Computer Weekly last year, the Government's focus on NHS IT should spell good news for IT professionals. The recently advertised vacancies, which included project leaders, project managers, and heads of programme, are a timely boost to an IT jobs market which has been in recession since the dotcom bubble burst.
Salaries quoted for the roles range from £19,000 to £30,000 for project leaders, project support analysts and project support officers, up to £70,000 for heads of programme. However, Martin Sexton, director of IT at systems integration specialist London Market Systems, warned that top IT professionals may expect higher salaries. He said, "It is encouraging to see that the Government is creating new jobs at the time of recession although one has to ask, at the salaries quoted, will they attract the best calibre of staff?"
The Department of Health said it was unable to talk about these specific vacancies and the health service's wider IT recruitment strategy, but said more information would available shortly.
However, Ted Woodhouse, director of IT at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS trust, which is the UK's largest Trust, highlighted some of the skills that are currently in demand in the health service. He said, "There is a range of different skills being asked for on several different levels in different areas of IT at the moment - if there are IT professionals that have those skills then this could be an opportunity for them to both help themselves and help the country improve its health service.
"These skills are likely to be in project management, project implementation as well as systems analysis and interfacing."
Woodhouse warned, however, that change management skills will be even more critical over the coming years as the health service develops its mammoth IT upgrade.
He said, "I hope that they will devote a large proportion of resources to recruiting and allocating change management skills to assist trusts in managing the business process changes and re-engineering necessary." In reality only 20% of the effort is IT related - 80% is associated with implementing process change, Woodhouse added.
It is clear, nonetheless, that one of the major selling points of this recruitment drive is the sheer scale of the new NHS IT strategy, which has been described by the health department as the most strategically important IT programme in Europe. Certainly, IT professionals are being offered the chance to become part of a unique scheme designing an IT infrastructure for an organisation with more than a million employees, serving the UK's 60 million population.
The NHS is also keen to shake off its reputation as something of a technology backwater. Successful candidates could find themselves working on some of the cutting edge IT initiatives that the NHS plans to implement over the coming years. These range from electronic health records to applications for booking appointments electronically. Long-term objectives of the overall strategy also include providing broadband access to all NHS clinicians and support staff, as well as implementation of domain-to-domain encryption.
Public sector IT expenditure is growing at a time when technology spending in other sectors of the economy has slowed down dramatically. Indeed, health service sources have suggested that the Government is likely to devote in the region of £2.35bn to delivering the new NHS IT strategy over the next three years. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health, however, was unable to confirm this amount although she said that the exact figure will be "coming out shortly".
With such resources available, IT professionals can look forward to more jobs becoming available in the NHS during the current drought in career opportunities elsewhere. Whether they are ready to take up the challenge in an organisation where IT has often been second to clinical priorities is another matter.