An investigation into the NHS's national IT programme by MPs has found that the £12.4bn scheme may fail to deliver what is required by the health service.
Published today (17 April), the Public Accounts Committee report is the most damning high-level assessment of the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) since its inception in 2002. It marks the culmination of several years' campaigning by Computer Weekly to highlight the programme's risks and challenges, amid a background of secrecy and little public acknowledgement in Whitehall of the scheme's difficulties.
The committee reviewed the Department of Health's strongest arguments in defence of the NPfIT and discounted most of them. In compiling its report, the committee received expert advice from public spending watchdog the National Audit Office (see below).
The report says the NPfIT has lost three key suppliers, is running late, and is having difficulties meeting its objective. This, it says, "raises doubts over whether the contracts will deliver what is required".
The Labour-dominated committee concluded that at the present rate of progress "it is unlikely that significant clinical benefits will be delivered" by the end of the contracts, most of which are due to run until 2014.
The findings of the report undermine the main justification for what is the world's largest civil IT programme, which is to significantly improve the care and treatment of patients.
The 175-page report has little good to say about the work on the programme. Key points include:
● Although more than £2bn has been spent, suppliers are "clearly struggling to deliver".
● Four years into the programme, there is still much uncertainty about the costs of the programme for the local NHS and the value of the benefits it should achieve.
● Although patient administration systems are being deployed to help trusts that urgently need new systems, this technology is "not a substitute for the vision of a shared electronic patient clinical record and no firm plans have been published for deploying software to achieve this vision".
● The Department of Health has failed to carry an important body of clinical opinion with it.
● The use of two main software suppliers may have inhibited innovation, progress and competition.
● Some deployments have caused serious problems for trusts.
Questions by Richard Bacon, a Conservative MP on the Public Accounts Committee, established that consultants on the programme were earning up to £2,400 a day. At the end of July 2006, there were 471 consultants/contractors engaged with NHS Connecting for Health, the government agency running the NPfIT.
Bacon said it was difficult to avoid the conclusion from the findings that the NPfIT has been a failure so far. He wants trusts to be able to buy their main systems from a range of suppliers whose technology conforms to national standards.
The Department of Health said that the technology to support "most aspects" of the NPfIT had already been delivered. "The remaining challenge is to utilise these systems fully at local level," it said.
Path to publication: how MPs caught up with the NPfIT
Behind the scenes, experts at the National Audit Office have played a key role in helping to produce the Public Accounts Committee's report.
Last June, the NAO produced a report on the NHS National Programme for IT. MPs on the Public Accounts Committee then questioned senior civil servants on the NAO's findings.
The Department of Health subsequently provided papers to the committee to answer specific points raised by the MPs. Independent experts also submitted papers.
Several months later, the NAO produced a first draft of the Public Accounts Committee's report, which was considered by the committee's MPs.
The NAO then reviewed for credibility and accuracy any changes to the first draft, and the final report was issued today (17 April).
Criticism and opportunity for NHS IT
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