The first formal parliamentary inquiry into the progress of a core part of the NHS's IT modernisation programme has left MPs angry at the lack of clarity in answers to their direct questions.
A hearing of the Public Accounts Committee in early November had been arranged to discuss reports by public spending watchdog the National Audit Office on Choose and Book, a key part of the national programme for IT in the NHS.
The scheme, which is designed to enable patients and GPs in England to pre-book hospital appointments at a time and location to suit, was described by Alan Williams, deputy chairman of the committee, as a "massive failure".
In 2003 Atos Origin won a £64m contract to deliver software to enable GPs to make hospital bookings online during consultations with patients.
However, there have been few appointments booked using the core systems because of technical, managerial and networking problems.
By December 2004 there had been just 63 bookings using Choose and Book, compared with an anticipated 205,000. This year the number of bookings has increased but still falls short. By 26 October there had been 20,297 bookings. The target is about 10 million appointments a year.
During last week's hearing MP Richard Bacon asked health officials for a "yes or no" answer to his question about statistics that show the rapidly increasing use of Choose and Book systems. He wanted to know whether the statistics included bookings made on the telephone, rather than through the fully-electronic system.
Neither John Bacon, overall senior responsible owner of the programme, nor Nigel Crisp, chief executive of the NHS, gave a "yes or no" answer. They said that Choose and Book offered patients the opportunity to book appointments on the telephone after leaving the GP's surgery.
Richard Bacon asked repeatedly for details of telephone-only bookings that were included in the statistics but received no clear answer.
Later Computer Weekly asked the Department of Health whether the official statistics included telephone-only bookings that could not be made using the fully electronic system. Its press office declined to say.
At the Public Accounts Committee hearing, answering MPs' suggestions that the project was failing, Crisp said the core IT systems supporting Choose and Book were working well. Explaining that the target for e-booking of 100% of all first hospital outpatients appointments had slipped by a year from December 2005 to 2006, Crisp said there were difficulties linking the various systems.
"Let us be clear," said Crisp. "The actual system itself does work. All the difficulties in implementation are about the interfaces, both human and system, with other parts of the NHS."