Spending watchdog to warn of delays to key NHS IT systems

National Audit Office report and leaked departmental letter point to concern over deadlines

National Audit Office report and leaked departmental letter point to concern over deadlines

Government auditors will publish a report tomorrow which criticises key aspects of Choose and Book, one of the central projects within the multibillion-pound national programme for IT in the NHS (NPfIT).

The government's spending watchdog the National Audit Office is expected to report that some trusts will not have fully integrated systems ready in time to support Choose and Book, the electronic booking of hospital appointments by GPs and patients at a time and location to suit, for which the government has set a deadline of December 2005.

The report, based in part on a survey of trusts, is expected to be critical of the speed with which the Department of Health is trying to deliver a complexity of systems to support the service.

And less than a week before the report's publication, the minister responsible for the NPfIT, John Hutton, and the director general of NHS IT, Richard Granger, hosted a rare joint press briefing in Whitehall to demonstrate the benefits of Choose and Book and other NPfIT systems.

Selected journalists from national newspapers, radio and other parts of the media were invited, but technology journalists were not. This meant that some of those with specific knowledge of Choose and Book and the NPfIT were unable to put their questions to the minister.

Meanwhile, a leaked copy of a letter from Margaret Edwards, director of access at the Department of Health, sent to chief executives in strategic health authorities, confirmed that some health communities will fail to have fully integrated systems by the December 2005 deadline.

NHS IT directors have already written to Computer Weekly complaining that they are expected to install what they said are unwieldy and expensive interim processes and systems to meet the deadline of December 2005, rather than wait to introduce fully-integrated equipment.

One of the problems for many trusts is that their core patient administration systems will not be compatible with national e-booking systems by December 2005.

A Department of Health spokesman said the health secretary John Reid is committed to introducing a choice of hospitals by the end of December 2005, whether or not fully integrated systems are in place. He was unable to comment on the NAO report, but said Reid will, on the day the NAO report is published, make a speech which robustly defends the policy of offering choice.

Choose and Book is one of the government's top priorities for the NHS, and has been backed personally by Tony Blair.

Last August the Department of Health published "Choose and Book", a policy framework which said that by December 2005 all patients who need a referral to hospital will be offered a choice of four to five hospitals. It said primary care trusts "will be responsible for ensuring choices are available and the necessary systems and processes are in place to offer and support choice and to enable appointments to be made".

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