The Department of Health is facing criticism that it has awarded a £64.5m contract for an England-wide electronic booking system for hospital appointments without producing any evidence that the software is wanted or will be used by most doctors and consultants.
Last week the health secretary John Reid and the director general of NHS IT Richard Granger announced that services company SchlumbergerSema had won the five-year contract to deliver the National Electronic Booking System. The system is one of the main planks of the government's £2.3bn programme to modernise NHS IT.
Once integrated with existing systems run by GPs and with new equipment to be installed by local service providers, the software will give patients in England a limited choice over the date and hospital at which they attend an outpatient appointment. The first patients will be able to have hospital appointments booked online by next summer.
Reid said the contract marked a "revolutionary" step towards ending the "inefficiency and mix-ups" of largely incompatible systems within the NHS. Patients will no longer have to wait weeks to be sent a notice of a consultation and then be given an inconvenient date.
Granger said the procurement schedule for the award of contract had been ground-breaking. There were only 190 days between advertising and award of contract, which was "unprecedented" for such a system, he said, adding that there had been a high degree of clinician involvement in the evaluation of systems.
But Jean Roberts, lead for the British Computer Society's health committee policy group, said she was concerned about the speed with which the contract had been awarded. This may haveallowed too little time to secure the commitment of consultants and doctors to using the systems, she said.
Grant Kelly, a GP and IT consultant, said, "Patients will be offered a set a choices but they will be fairly limited because of difficulties with capacity."
He also pointed out that replacing current methods for booking appointments with rule-based systems could cause a great deal of disruption by reducing human intervention in the process.
IT expert witness Stephen Castell said that perhaps not enough attention had been paid to the changes that doctors would need to make in their working practices to make good use of a national booking system.
In June, when healthcare market research company Medix surveyed more than 1,000 doc-tors about the national programme for IT, many welcomed a scheme for electronic patient records but few expressed support for electronic booking systems.
What's in store for NHS systems?
The National Electronic Booking System is one of four main projects in the national programme. The others are: Integrated Care Records Service (patient records), a new infrastructure and e-prescriptions, contracts for which have yet to be awarded.
Five local service providers are due to be appointed by the end of December 2003 to build and run patient records. They may also provide equipment to help GPs connect to national booking systems.