Time for truth about NHS plan

Christopher Bland, chairman of BT, said at an NHS conference held in private that his company is somewhat frightened by the...

Christopher Bland, chairman of BT, said at an NHS conference held in private that his company is somewhat frightened by the complexity and enormity of the £2.3bn national programme for IT in the NHS.

He speaks with some authority. BT is the main beneficiary among the programme's IT suppliers. Bland says the contracts are in aggregate the biggest in BT's history. At the same conference, the health minister John Hutton also referred to the programme's risks. Their frank speeches alluded to the many uncertainties that still exist.

Few private sector companies would make this sort of investment in an IT strategy shot through with so many uncertainties. But the programme is financed by billions of pounds of taxpayers' money. Yet Hutton and Bland should be congratulated for their frankness. It was an admission from the highest level of something we all know: that the national programme, for all its laudable goals and achievements, involves massive risk. The trouble is that the forum in which this dose of reality was administered was a private one: an invited audience only. It is time these things were said in public.

Instead, the public face of the national programme is defensiveness and an obsession with its own achievements. The Department of Health is talking of revolutions in the NHS and the biggest civil IT project on the planet. And it is advertising in its press releases its achievements so far.

This is not the way to manage expectations for a project of this magnitude or level of risk. Winning the hearts and minds of clinicians will only come with openness and honesty. Giving bland reassurances and reminding them constantly of the benefits of the national programme will not suffice.

Healthcare IT professionals have asked for months how much the systems will cost to implement locally and whether they can be afforded. Nobody knows how much the change management programme will cost, or who will foot the bill.

Health IT professionals had been told, "Wait until the contracts are awarded and all will become clear." Yet all the main national and local service provider contracts have now been awarded and still direct questions are met with unspecific reassurances.

Computer Weekly wants the national programme to succeed. We fear that it will proclaim success without achieving it, however. We urge the Department of Health to stop being defensive and secretive. Instead it needs to be as open about the challenges as it is about the successes. IT staff should be told about how things really are, as opposed to how ministers would like them to be.

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