Health minister rebuffs calls for audit, pointing to NPfIT progress

NHS IT: As the debate continues about its technical feasibility, the national programme signs a £41m support deal, and one trust decides to look outside the scheme for systems

NHS IT: As the debate continues about its technical feasibility, the national programme signs a £41m support deal, and one trust decides to look outside the scheme for systems

Health minister Caroline Flint has responded to calls by 23 of the UK's leading computer science academics for a technical audit of the NHS national programme for IT, by insisting that the project has made considerable progress.

She said on television that 47% of GPs are already live with services. She said 1,000 GP practices are now using systems and 200,000 health professionals are registered to use them.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health later confirmed that this referred to 48% of GPs connected to and using the Choose and Book hospital appointment systems.

The minister also said there was significant progress in creating electronic connections between GPs and pharmacists.

But Flint was only talking about two of the NPfIT's six components. The remaining four areas are NHS Care Records Service, a new national broadband IT network for the NHS, Picture Archiving and Communications Systems, IT supporting GP payments, and Contact - a central e-mail and directory service for the NHS.

Connecting for Health, which runs the NPfIT, maintains that there has been solid progress on these fronts too.

Commenting on Flint's claims Ewart Carson, professor of system science at the centre for health informatics, City University and one of those calling for an independent audit, said the bulk of the work in the NPfIT lay with the creation of 50 million electronic health records.

Flint did not refer to this aspect of the programme. "I am always taken by what is not mentioned," Carson said.

The creation of electronic health records is the most complex aspect of the programme. In September last year, the Department of Health attempted to overcome delays by allowing interim, standalone systems to be rolled out by hospitals that had held off buying their own systems because of the national programme.

It is unclear how these systems will be connected to the central data spine as originally intended.

Carson also questioned the figures for GPs using online booking, since many were still using remote telephone booking services.

Likewise, although there were working pilots on electronic prescription transfer, the original timetable said phase one of the system would be rolled out by the end of 2005. This target had moved to 2007, he said.

"It is a question of how you spin the figures. The reality is both electronic prescribing and booking are significantly behind."

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