Relapse for NPfIT white elephant records system

Just when the National Health Service’s mighty and troubled £12.7bn programme to provide every patient in England with an electronic record looked as though it might be about to turn an important corner, it has skidded off the road again.

The resulting accident is not yet terminal. But it does mean more dire headlines and it is hard to see how the news of Fujitsu’s departure from the Connecting for Health programme will not produce further delays to an electronic record that is already running more than four years late – even if some parts of the exercise, ironically, may speed up.

The bad news that the programme has parted company with another big supplier – Accenture having walked away in 2006 – comes as things were finally looking up. BT appeared to be cracking the installation of the new systems in London, the part of the country for which it holds the local service provider contract.

Preliminary installations that are critical to getting the electronic record to work have gone into most of London’s mental health trusts and two or three big acute hospitals – not without inevitable teething troubles, but without the sort of catastrophic disruption that hospitals in the south have at times seen as Fujitsu tried to do the same.

In the north, iSoft’s long-delayed Lorenzo patient-record software is about to go into three pathfinder trusts this summer. If that had gone well, the programme would have felt itself to be back on track. Now it is plunged into further doubt and condemnation from opposition politicians who were demanding yet again a review.

Fujitsu’s deal always looked questionable. It was the last, and in terms of scope, the biggest of the five regional installation contracts. It covered more than 12m people and 90 hospitals and NHS organisations.

But Fujitsu’s agreed price for it was only £896m, nearly £200m less to cover 25 per cent of the population than Accenture got from the NHS for covering 15 per cent. It looked badly underpriced.

A senior Fujitsu executive predicted that once one or two of the systems were in it would be “like shelling peas”. It proved to be anything but.

Hospital after hospital suffered crashes and troubled installations as what was still an interim system, without the full record, went in. As of March, new systems had gone into just nine out of 41 acute hospitals and they were working so badly that Fujitsu had not been paid for more than half of them, according to the National Audit Office.

Industry sources say both BT and Computer Services Corporation, which now holds the installation contract for almost everything north of London, have been more flexible about giving NHS trusts what they want, instead of insisting they have precisely what was specified in the original contract.

Negotiations with Fujitsu are understood to have broken down not on the price the NHS was prepared to pay for a more flexible deal but on the timing of upfront payments that the company wanted.

The NHS refused to depart from the principle that has kept the programme on budget to date – that it will not pay for services until they are delivered. One senior health department source said: “We have to protect the taxpayer.”

In a letter to NHS trusts, Gordon Hextall, the programme’s chief operating officer, said Fujitsu would support existing live sites and the industry expectation is that they will complete one or two that are about to go live in order to get paid.

Beyond that, rather than a complete takeover of Fujitsu’s contract by one provider, Connecting for Health may use the existing contracts to get both BT and CSC to take over different parts of Fujitsu’s uncompleted work: an approach that could give NHS trusts in the south more choice. Cerner, the key software supplier for the south may take a bigger role.

And Connecting for Health has also just signed a framework contract with a range of other, new, suppliers that could be brought into play.

All that will be the subject of fraught negotiation. For now, the programme feels as if it is on a knife-edge.


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