NHS to spend up to £60m on private sector IT unit

The Department of Health plans to spend up to £60m building a new central IT management unit, even though some hospitals are...

The Department of Health plans to spend up to £60m building a new central IT management unit, even though some hospitals are raiding charity funds to update ageing systems.

Details of the plan to spend an extra £1m a month for five years on a new IT "national programme office" were published as Computer Weekly revealed last week that a London trust has used charity money earmarked for patient care to replace an outdated pathology system.

Since this disclosure, it has emerged that other hospitals have used hand-outs from charities to fund essential IT maintenance.

Officials at the Department of Health say they need the programme office to provide extra skills as they embark on national projects funded by an extra £2.3bn allocated to NHS IT over three years.

The government has already set up two central IT organisations, the NHS Information Authority and the Information Policy Unit. The Department of Health said it would reconfigure both bodies while creating the new office.

A tender placed in the European Journal seeks a private sector organisation to help to run and staff the programme office.

It will have up to 50 people from the private sector and could have at least as many from the public sector, led by NHS IT tsar Richard Granger, the UK's highest paid civil servant. Leading NHS figures in the office will include Jeremy Thorpe and Anthony Nowlan from the NHS Information Authority.

The department also confirmed that the £2.3bn is not for maintaining existing IT systems. The funding is "primarily dedicated to deliver the four national initiatives" of systems that manage patient records, booking of appointments, prescribing drugs and infrastructure.

Trusts and GPs can "only receive funds that support the four national initiatives" said the department. Trusts may also have to prove "existing levels of information management and technology baseline spend will be maintained before new funds can be released".

But some IT specialists say this central control of funding appears to contradict Labour's promise before the 1997 general election to "remove inappropriate central interference in local information management strategy".

While welcoming the additional NHS spending on IT, they also question whether the two most complex national initiatives - electronic patient records and booking systems - can be made to work in the short time allowed by the Department of Health.

In assessing 16 test sites for electronic patient records, PA Consulting said in a 144-page report that it has been able only to "scratch the surface at each site visited in terms of user needs" and other issues.

The report said, "Many of the projects have demonstrated how difficult it can be to drive through change effectively in the complex and unstable environment that exists in health and social services.

"This makes it even more crucial that there is ownership of responsibility for change at a high enough level. The lack of this visible ownership and active sponsorship can be a disaster to the success of a project (in Gloucester and Kingston &Richmond)," said the report dated 31 January.

Matthew Taylor, Liberal Democrat treasury spokesman, said it is "vital for the NHS to have the right IT" but warned, "The department is making the same old mistakes by over-centralising IT in the misplaced belief that the NHS has the expertise to manage IT systems that would defeat the biggest corporations."

However, the Department of Health said, "There is strong support from the IT industry for a centralised and clearer procurement process."

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