Once they were given its details by Computer Weekly senior NHS IT professionals warned that the scheme could become another expensive NHS IT disaster.
An investigation by Computer Weekly has established that the NHS has consulted IT executives in eight health regions and a small number of other computer specialists, mainly those involved in centrally-funded trials of the booking scheme.
But the consultation paper was not shown to computer professionals at more than a thousand hospitals who are likely to be involved in the scheme. Of those who received the paper, several said that it was drawn to their attention only one working day before the paper's consultation period expired on 5 February.
Phil Sissons, chairman of the healthcare group of the main suppliers' trade body, the Computing Services and Software Association (CSSA) said, "The briefing paper appears to have had a very limited circulation list for something that could have such a wide impact."
Dated 23 January 2001, the briefing paper was written by the Department of Health's National Patient Access Team. Once its contents became known during Computer Weekly's investigation, healthcare IT professionals and suppliers said that the paper's proposals for a single national booking scheme could become another centrally-led NHS IT disaster.
They claimed that the current diverse local arrangements for booking patient appointments made the idea of a single national system or service impossibly complex. The CSSA said it preferred mandated standards that accredited suppliers would have to meet in delivering local booking systems.
But the briefing paper is critical of local systems and sets out a national managed service as the lowest-cost option. Although the paper concedes that, under criteria laid down by the Treasury to identify possible IT disasters, the booking scheme is "high risk," it suggests that all of the risks are manageable. Approval may be given before the General Election.
A nationwide project has the support of the prime minister who has said that a patient booking scheme will give the NHS "the most advanced and patient friendly arrangements for delivering your care of any healthcare system in the world".
A Department of Health spokesman said, "To speak of a national system being imposed at this stage is premature and demonstrates a lack of understanding of the purpose of a Strategic Outline Case".
But the briefing paper says the next stages will include approval of an outline business case, an advertisement in the European Journal, shortlisting and award of contract. Last Sunday, Health secretary Alan Milburn said there will be a "national booking system by 2005".