IT staff working for the NHS Information Authority (NHSIA) face an uncertain future as the date for the agency's closure was announced last week.
By the end of March 2005 the authority, which managed the development of NHSnet, will close as a result of the Gershon review of the Civil Service in July. The move has raised fears that important knowledge of managing NHS IT could be lost in the closure.
The NHSIA has 900 staff located in offices in Birmingham, Exeter, Winchester, Newcastle, Ruislip, Barnsley, Huntingdon and central London. A total of 253 employees currently provide central service functions from various locations.
The agency's work, including running systems for GP payment and breast cancer screening, will become the responsibility of the National Programme for IT. Responsibility for medical statistics will transfer to the newly formed Health and Social Care Information Centre.
Lynn Grimes, the authority's deputy director of marketing and communications, said, "One of the stated aims of the review is to achieve a 25% reduction in staff so it is inevitable that there will be some redundancies. However we do not currently know the extent.
"We are holding regular monthly face-to-face meetings with our staff and giving them every support during this critical time.
"We are also working with both new organisations to ensure minimum disruption to our business services, customers and staff. And we are working with the wider NHS to ensure that as many staff as possible are redeployed and that key skills are retained."
A spokeswoman for the authority confirmed that no date had been set to notify staff about their future.
The information authority has played an important leadership role in NHS IT, guiding training and change management programmes, included the well-respected Primis project to improve the quality of medical data on GP computer systems.
"In order to make IT work in the health service you've got to have champions. The role of the information authority was to be that champion," said Paul Goss, director of Silicon Bridge Research, an analyst firm specialising in health IT.
Such champions are essential to manage change in business processes that go with IT implementation of the National Programme for IT, including electronic booking and managing electronic health records, he said.
"A year ago the NHS Modernisation Agency took that role, now that has diminished, then some of it was transferred to the NHSIA and now that has diminished too."
Responsibility for change management is being transferred to clusters of strategic health authorities aligned with the national programme. But with information authority staff still uncertain over their future, Goss was concerned that valuable knowledge of NHS processes could be lost.
"There is still no effective clinical information management force - the skills of motivation and leadership to get devolved and dispersed medical groups to work with IT. With the information authority gone we are left with a bit of a vacuum. Knowledge will be lost, that is inevitable," said Goss.