The Cabinet Office IT Unit (Citu) could be heading for a confrontation with the National Health Service Information Authority (NHSIA)over networking standards and data integration.
Government IT chiefs want XML to be the standard for developing data integration across the whole public sector. But, the NHSIA said XML is "unco-ordinated" and not ready for use in key parts of the health service, particularly pathology messaging. Instead it will rely on 25-year-old electronic data interchange (EDI) technology.
Each year NHS labs send 35 million pathology reports to GPs. Sending reports electronically, rather than on paper is seen as an important step in the development of the troubled NHSnet network.
The Cabinet Office's E-government Interoperability Framework states, "Adherence to the framework standards and policies is mandatory. There is a strategic decision to adopt XML and XSL [Extensible Stylesheets Language] as the core standards for data integration and presentation."
However, in a recent policy document, Pathology Messaging - to XML or not to XML, the NHSIA said, "Edifact [EDI] has proved itself invaluable in regulating electronic business. At present XML is unco-ordinated and Edifact remains a more reliable methodology on which the NHS can depend to transfer meaningful data."
The report's author, Rick Jones, director of clinical biochemistry at the Leeds and Bradford NHS trusts and senior pathology user on the GPnet programme board of the NHSIA, is determined to start a debate with the Government about the way forward.
He told Computer Weekly, "If we go down the XML route now we would have to wait two years to get proper protocols. We can't afford to wait."
Jones said the existing security standards for XML are inadequate for healthcare. "There is a gap between what the politicians and senior managers say they want and what the professionals can deliver," he said.
A Citu spokesman said, "The Government is extremely clear on its interoperability strategy and that is to use XML."
Privately, Citu officials are both surprised and dismayed by the NHSIA position. They believe "any strategy for development needs to be Internet-based and that means XML".