Conservative Party backs call for audit of NHS IT scheme

The Conservative Party has backed a call from Computer Weekly for an independent audit of the national programme for IT in the...

The Conservative Party has backed a call from Computer Weekly for an independent audit of the national programme for IT in the NHS (NPfIT).

Tory shadow minister for health Andrew Murrison said his party would order the audit if it won the next general election to assess whether the world's largest civil IT project is heading for success or not.

Board papers from NHS trusts around the UK continue to express concern about funding, repeated delays, poor communications and whether the systems being deployed will meet the needs of, and be used by, clinicians.

Murrison said Computer Weekly had put up a convincing case for an audit. "There are sufficient grounds right now for a review based on the progress of the NPfIT. We are concerned that the programme is slipping - we are receiving numerous comments from those in the know."

Computer Weekly's editor Hooman Bassirian said, "A forward-looking review would complement a study on the project's value for money by public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office.

"It would look at whether the programme is too big to manage, and whether there are any structural or cultural weaknesses which could affect its future."

The audit would also look at the way the programme, costing between £6bn and £30bn, is being managed and supervised by the government.

A spokesman for the NPfIT insisted that the programme was not in trouble. He said the programme has been subject to considerable formal scrutiny by the Office of Government Commerce, internal audit teams from the Department of Health and is being studied by the National Audit Office.

"The national programme co-operates fully with all such scrutiny and believes it is subject to appropriate examinationÉ We should like to place on record that we do no think it is appropriate for a commercial media organisation to be calling for an independent review of the national programme when that is rightly the role of the NAO, which reports to Parliament."

The scale of the challenge, which is driving calls for an independent audit, was highlighted by the leak of a report on the deployment status of projects in London for the week ending 25 February 2005.

Of 20 named trusts in London which are due to go live with new systems in the next year, 19 are at red status, which indicates that a key milestone is threatened, one is at amber and one at green.

The go-live dates are from the Deployment Master Plan approved by the NPfIT on 20 December 2004.

Documents released to Computer Weekly under the Freedom of Information Act by trusts around the country highlight other concerns, few of which are reflected in the national programme's announcements and literature.

The latest published minutes of its programme board from November 2004 has no mention of any serious concerns, although it mentions "potential pressures on NPfIT finances". The NPfIT's published operational information refers to the availability of the NPfIT's data "spine" which is put at nearly 99% for January 2005.

Jean Roberts, lead for the policy taskforce of the Health Informatics Forum of the British Computer Society, warned that any investigation would be of little value unless action is taken on its findings. "The recent NAO Report on Choose and Book contained some strong observations about which action is not yet evident," she said.

Roberts said early adopters of new systems are being "deluged by data" but the "rest of the NHS and those working with it are still in relative darkness".

With progress in some implementations and backward shifts in others, the BCS forum believes it is "imperative that more transparency is created", especially as this year the NPfIT is devoting large resources to a national campaign to raise awareness of the programme.

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