'Only risk is not to take risk' says NHS chief

Is the government's national programme for NHS IT set to be the biggest gamble in the world?

Is the government's national programme for NHS IT set to be the biggest gamble in the world?

The question was asked at the Healthcare Computing conference in Harrogate last week by Aidan Halligan, joint senior responsible owner of the £2.3bn programme. He was reading the question from the projected image on the large screen behind him of a headline in last week's issue of Computer Weekly.

The article highlighted a series of risks to the programme, including the lack of support by clinicians, and had questioned whether the risks had made the programme the world's biggest IT gamble.

Halligan, deputy chief medical officer at the Department of Health, said the answer to the question was, "The only risk is not to take the risk." He added, "We have absolutely no choice. We will not let our patients down. We will not let our staff down."

He said there were 100,000 deaths a year in the US due to medical error. "There is a good possibility that 60% of those 100,000 might be avoided if medical histories were instantly available at the physicians' fingertips."

One of the key aims of the UK's national programme is to give physicians controlled access to a centralised database of summary electronic records. Ultimately, the system will replace manual records in hospitals, some of which can go missing or have been known to be accidentally shredded, said Halligan.

Up to 50 million patients in England will also have access to their records by home computer or, ultimately, via their televisions. The National Care Records Service is due to start going live this year.

Halligan's role as a senior responsible owner entails ensuring that clinicians support the national programme and that the benefits of the multibillion-pound spend are realised. In his well-received speech at the end of the three-day conference, he showed none of the reluctance of others in the Department of Health who have declined to publicly discuss in detail the risks of failure.

Halligan, himself a clinician, highlighted some of the results of a survey of doctors conducted by internet polling specialist Medix on behalf of Computer Weekly and the national programme for IT. The survey found that 88% of doctors saw consultation over the national programme as important or very important, but 75% said there had been none that included them personally.

"That is reality," said Halligan. "If we go into reality blindness on this, we are programming to fail."

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