Watchdog delays report into NHS IT programme

Public spending watchdog the National Audit Office has delayed publishing a report on its investigation into the national programme for IT in the NHS (NPfIT), one of the world's largest computer-related schemes.

tony.collins@rbi.co.uk

Public spending watchdog the National Audit Office has delayed publishing a report on its investigation into the national programme for IT in the NHS (NPfIT), one of the world's largest computer-related schemes.

News of the delay comes as a paper published in the British Medical Journal, the magazine of  the British Medical Association, heavily criticises NHS Connecting for Health, which runs the NPfIT, for poor communication and engagement with clinicians who will use the systems it is deploying.

The delay raises concerns that there could disagreements between the NAO and Whitehall officials over the evidence to be presented in the report.

Under Parliamentary convention the factual content of NAO reports must be agreed with departments before publication.

The NAO announced last year that the report would be published this summer, but it has confirmed that publication is not now likely until November. It could be delayed again if there are any protracted disagreements between the NAO and Whitehall.

There have been hints of conflicts between evidence provided by trusts and the Department of Health over the NPfIT - for example, over costs.

An NAO report published in June on financial management in the NHS said that although the costs of hardware and software on core services within the NPfIT would be funded centrally, "There will be considerable additional costs borne by NHS bodies at local level."

The NAO was told by the Department of Health that the savings from the introduction of national systems could help to offset local implementation costs. But the NAO added, "Some NHS bodies have expressed concerns about possible shortfalls."

NAO officials suggested that the reason for the delay in publishing the NPfIT report was pressure of the Audit Office's workload and the fact that reports cannot be published during Parliament's summer recess.

The NAO is examining the procurement processes used for placing the contracts, whether contracts are likely to deliver value for money, how the department is implementing the programme and the progress made.

The NPfIT aims to create a care records service to improve the sharing of patient records, an e-booking scheme, the electronic transmission of prescriptions, the storing and distribution of x-rays and a broadband infrastructure.

Have we been here before?

In the mid-1990s there were long delays in the publication of an NAO report into the way the Department of Health managed the Read Codes scheme to introduce a standard coding system for recording medical ailments. An NAO investigation began in May 1996 but its report was not published until March 1998.

When MPs questioned the delay in publishing the report, the then chief executive of the NHS Alan Langlands initially said that there were staff changes on both sides which interrupted progress. When further questioned he said, "It is also fair to say there were disagreements about some of the evidence."

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