NHS needs investment to make the most of IT

Tony Blair's recent calls for improved use of technology in the NHS would require both a massive investment and a significant...

Tony Blair's recent calls for improved use of technology in the NHS would require both a massive investment and a significant cultural change in the health service, experts have said.

Speaking in a televised debate on the future of the NHS last week the prime minister asserted that "massive changes and savings" could be made with better systems and technology.

Murray Bywater, managing director of healthcare IT specialist Silicon Bridge Research, believes widescale NHS technological change will come at a price.

"Re-engineering requires a substantial investment in the specific IT infrastructure," he said. This investment will be greater than anything that has been previously envisaged, he added.

Bywater warned that the level of investment the NHS currently provides in terms of IT support for its employees is very low, even in comparison with the rest of government. The sheer scale of the NHS, which is one of the largest organisations in the world, has always presented a real technological challenge to the Government.

However, Bywater believes that listening to patients' calls for new technology is crucial to building a successful NHS IT infrastructure.

"The NHS has to make more use of technology to provide patients and citizens with the services that they want electronically, such as NHS Direct," he said.

NHS Direct, the national telephone and Internet healthcare service, recently won praise in a report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

John Bourn, head of the NAO, praised the project team's achievement in meeting the Government's targets for introducing the telephone service and its associated Web site.

The success of NHS Direct aside, Bywater believes that the NHS should also make more effective use of services that rely on electronic support, such as scheduling. "It is a question of looking again at how the NHS provides its services and using technology to support them," he said.

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