Academics demand inquiry into NHS IT

A group of UK technology experts have urged MPs to take a close look at the NHS National Programme for IT, amid growing fears over the scheme's progress

A group of UK computer science academics have called for the Government to rethink its strategy for reforming the technology infrastructure of the NHS.

In an open letter sent to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Health on Tuesday, 23 academics highlighted their concerns over the changes proposed by the Government in the £6.2bn National Programme for IT (NpfIT). They called for a "thorough, independent technical review" of the scheme.

The academics include some of the best known names in computer science in the UK, such as Professor Ross Anderson, an expert in security, Professor Ewart Carson, a healthcare technology expert at the IEE, and Professor Frank Land, who as a developer of Leo, the world's first business computer, is one of the most distinguished names in UK IT.

The letter points to apparent problems that have emerged at the NPfIT including the issue of whether or not the NPfIT will be delivered within the timescales predicted. The letter also points out that "two of [the] largest suppliers have issued warnings about profit in relation to their work and a third has been fined for inadequate performance".

The two suppliers who admitted difficulties were Accenture, who admitted last week that it expected to make a $450m (£260) loss on its part of the contract, and iSoft, who in January said it expected to earn £55m less than expected from its work with NHS Trusts. BT has been fined for failing to meet pre-set targets.

The project has been beset by other difficulties, and back in November it was reported that its centralised patient booking system — a key component of the strategy — would be delayed.

According to the open letter, the British IT community is united in its misgivings about the all-important strategy. The British Computer Society has added its name to the list of critics, by expressing "concern that NPfIT may show a shortfall of billions of pounds".

The academics cast doubt on just about every aspect of NPfIT, arguing that fundamental issues have not been addressed: "Does NPfIT have a comprehensive, robust technical architecture? Project plan? Detailed design? Have these documents been reviewed by experts of calibre appropriate to the scope of the NPfIT?"

In particular the academics highlight the crucial area of data volumes, questioning whether the Government has taken into account the "volumes of data and traffic that a fully functioning NPfIT will have to support across the thousands of healthcare organisations in England."