NHS records NPfIT project grinds to halt

Progress on the £12bn computer programme (NPfIT) designed to give doctors instant access to patients’ records across the country has virtually ground to a halt, raising questions about whether the world’s biggest civil information technology project will ever be finished.

Connecting for Health, the ambitious plan to give every patient a comprehensive electronic record, has faced a series of problems over its size and complexity since it was first launched in 2002.

In May this year, the National Audit Office said the project was running at least four years late but still appeared “feasible”.

Since then, however, just one of the scores of acute care hospitals due to install the underlying administration system required in order for the patient record to work has done so. The hospital, Royal Free NHS Trust in London, continues to have difficulties getting it to operate properly.

In addition, the contractor originally hired to build the patient record system for the whole of the south of England, Fujitsu, has been fired. And BT, one of the two key remaining contractors, has been unable to agree a price for taking over the work Fujitsu had begun.

Health ministers originally promised the long-delayed first installation of patient record software in the north of England would finally take place in June at Morecambe Bay on the Lancashire/Cumbria border.

But four months on, the system has still not gone live and neither Morecambe Bay nor Connecting for Health can give a date when it might.

CfH’s most recent published plans for the next three months do not include a single installation of a patient administration system into any acute hospital trust.

And while NHS Trusts in the south – Fujitsu’s former area – are being given a choice of working with BT, the supplier for London, or CSC, the supplier for the north, none has yet signed up with either.

Jon Hoeksma, editor of the e-health insider website which has tracked the CfH programme from its start, said other parts of the £12bn project are continuing to make progress.

“But this key part seems to be simply stuck. It has ground to a halt. And that is not just affecting deployments that should be happening now. It will have a knock-on effect on those that are meant to be going live two or three years down the line.”

Hospital chief executives, he said, did not want to take a new system “until they have seen it put in pretty flawlessly elsewhere”.

Frances Blunden, the IT policy specialist at the NHS Confederation, the body that represents NHS Trusts, said: “It is a little bit too early to pronounce the programme dead.”

She said there were “undeniable” problems, but “to say everyone is walking away from it is a bit premature, probably”.

She said the health department had promised earlier this year to address hospital complaints that the system was too standardised and could not be adjusted to take account of local needs. “But we haven’t seen the implementation document to put flesh on the bones of that.”

A spokesman for Connecting for Health acknowledged that BT, which covers London, was “taking stock” given the difficulties encountered. The spokesman said it was more important to get the quality of installations right rather than promise delivery on a particular date. Talks with suppliers were under way to ensure “a smooth transition” in the south, after Fujitsu’s departure.


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