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NHS Choices £80m price tag- another IT disaster?

NHS Choices website- more bad news. Health Direct posts NHS has signed another massive IT contract, this time an £80m deal to create the biggest, most erudite, cradle-to-grave healthcare website in the world. Ever.

The site is called NHS Choices, and it occupies the URL nhs.uk. The site already combines the roles of medical encyclopedia, NHS guidebook and users’ forum.

The interactive health guides are as readable as commercial handbooks, and presumably as authoritative. My personal favourite feature is Behind the Headlines, inherited from the old National Electronic Library for Health, which sets out the facts behind those “Two cups of tea a day can cure dementia” headlines you see in the red tops.

NHS Choices is also gatekeeper and evangelist for labour’s government policy of encouraging patients (in England) to be picky about their hospitals. As labour rightly stresses, choice must be based on information. Thus the site publishes patients’ (moderated) comments about care they receive in individual institutions, as well as official data such as survival rates from some surgical procedures.

What, then, is the worry? The answer lies in the scale of the undertaking and what it means for the rest of the e-health economy.

In the words of a vision paper published earlier this year, NHS Choices is to become “the digital wing of the NHS”. This is in keeping with the government-wide strategy of rationalising the number of official websites down to a handful of “supersites”, both to save money and make life easier for users.

The trouble with being a supersite is that it tends to make you slow, bureaucratic and a big fat target. Every time an NHS organisation says it can’t afford a new drug or procedure, you can guarantee the cry will go up: “But you can afford £80m for a website?”

Especially as some of the services – collecting patients’ feedback, for example – seem to duplicate those of independent ventures such as Patient Opinion (patientopinion.org.uk) and the newly launched Iwantgreatcare (iwantgreatcare.org).

And, busy as it is, the current NHS Choices site is just the start of the project. This autumn, under the new contract, it will integrate with the online element of the NHS Direct health helpline.

Next year it will take on information about social care, which is provided mainly by local authorities rather than the NHS. And all of this is just a preliminary for the real challenge – becoming the front end of HealthSpace, the ambitious system of personal electronic health records being created by the NPfIT white elephant NHS National Programme for IT.

Any one of these initiatives has the potential to become labour’s next IT-enabled public relations disaster. Let’s hope the Department of Health and its supersite contractor, Capita, knows what it’s doing this time.

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