Angry IT staff say NHS denigrates their success

Staff take offence over NHS document on new supplier responsibilities

Staff take offence over NHS document on new supplier responsibilities.

IT staff and their professional organisations have criticised a widely circulated official document which they say denigrates the role of thousands of NHS computer specialists and highlights the expertise of suppliers that have been awarded local service provider contracts.

They said the document undervalues or dismisses decades of achievement by IT specialists who have delivered systems and management support under pressure of small, local budgets.

At the same time, the document holds up Accenture, which has won a £934m contract as the local service provider in the East of England, as an expert in the design, implementation and operation of IT systems.

The document's wording risks undermining the relationship between the Department of Health's national programme for IT and the NHS's 20,000 computer professionals, whose full support and enthusiasm will be needed to deliver the benefits of the £2.3bn IT-led modernisation of the NHS.

It is an "overview" of the contract for a care records system and associated services signed in December 2003 by John Reid, the secretary of state for health, and Accenture.

It has been published in the North East of England by the national programme for IT in the NHS, a part of the Department of Health.

IT staff have been upset by statements made under the heading "agreement principles", which said, "The agreement recognises that the NHS is not an expert on the design or implementation of IT systems and that Accenture will take this responsibility and riskÉ the NHS is not an expert on the design, implementation or operation of IT systems: the contractor is."

IT specialists in the North East said the comments have caused offence and their concerns have been raised with the Association of ICT Professionals in Health and Social Care (Assist). They believe that the statements in the contract summary impugn their professionalism.

Tony Eardley, chairman of Assist, said he was aware of the concerns of IT staff over the wording of the contract summary and understood their concerns about their work being apparently undervalued by the Department of Heath.

He said the document might have been "hastily put together" and was "infelicitously phrased".

"This emphasises the need for the national programme to work with existing NHS informatics staff to achieve successful implementation," Eardley added.

Jean Roberts, lead for the British Computer Society's Health Informatics Committee Policy Task Force, said the wording of the contract summary appeared to criticise the IT professionals whose support will be needed to make the national programme a success.

It "very much" undervalues the work of IT professionals in the health service, she said, adding that Accenture did not have a "whiter than white" record in the NHS. The supplier was a primary contractor to the Wessex Regional Health Authority for its regional information systems plan, which was abandoned in 1992 at a cost to taxpayers of up to £63m.

Computer Weekly put details of staff concerns over statements made in the contract summary to the national programme. In response it said it was unaware of any complaint about the summary contract.

"The national programme would like to confirm that there is no intention to suggest in the contract summary document that IT in the NHS has been poor or that NHS IT staff are undervalued.

"What this section of the summary document is intended to indicate is that, while NHS staff have a long track record of purchasing and implementing local systems, they do not have the requisite capacity and full range of expertise for the management of the design, development, testing, deployment and support of national systems that have to be integrated and communicate on a nationwide basis using the most advanced technology available. Hence, the summary points out that the risks in achieving this have been transferred to service providers."

The spokesman said the national programme was "well aware of the high quality services being provided by NHS IT specialists".

The national programme also provided comments from NHS executives in support of the national programme. Claire Pacey, said, "As deputy regional implementation director for the North East cluster, I would totally refute the accusation that the national programme undervalues the role and experience of IT professionals in the NHS." She said that the reverse was the case.

A spokesman for Accenture said, "As a global IT services company we work with more than 4,000 clients and over the past five years we have designed and implemented systems on more than 18,000 engagements. With regard to Wessex, there was never an issue around the technology that we built. In fact we fulfilled our contractual obligations."

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