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Academics demand NHS IT review

Experts are worried that the NHS National Programme for IT will fail, and are demanding an independent technical review
Written by Richard Thurston, Contributor

A group of leading UK-based academics have again called on the Government to undertake an immediate and independent review of the NHS' multi-billion pound IT programme, NPfIT.

The group, which comprises 23 computing experts from a wide array of British universities, say urgent action is necessary to prevent the National Programme for IT from failing.

They are angered by a lack of action following a succession of project disasters over the summer.

In July a datacentre failure disconnected 80 NHS Trusts, and earlier this month key supplier Accenture pulled completely out of the project following huge financial losses at its sub-contractor iSoft.

"The programme is exhibiting more and more indications that it could fail. There are more reasons that an independent review should be held," said Martyn Thomas, a lecturer in IT at the University of Oxford, speaking to ZDNet UK on Tuesday.

On Friday the academics wrote to the House of Commons Health Committee outlining their concerns.

In April, they met with programme director general Richard Granger following an earlier letter, but they are not satisfied with tthe progress made since.

"We were given the political runaround first time," said Ross Anderson, a security expert at the University of Cambridge. "But it is not a happy project, and ministers have to face up to that fact."

Anderson said that the independent review the group is demanding should utilise sufficient expertise in IT projects, but he warned that it "might be turned by government into another review from the NAO".

The National Audit Office reviewed the programme in a report released in June, but the content of the report came under fire after several criticisms were removed.

Referring to the need for knowledgeable parties to be involved in the review, Anderson said: "It should not be the usual suspects of NHS insiders and people eager for knighthoods."

Asked by ZDNet UK about the consequences of a continued lack of action on the programme, Anderson added: "One possibility is that it would be the end of the NHS. Eventually it [the programme] may face systematic failure."

The NHS distanced itself from the academics' letter, saying in a statement that it was a matter for the Health Committee.

"Connecting for Health [the part of the NHS which runs NPfIT] is open to scrutiny and recognises that other parties — from a range of backgrounds, not just computer science — may be able to offer helpful perspectives," said the NHS.

The statement continued: "Connecting for Health [CfH] is currently exploring the possibility of creating a reference panel made up of a mix of academic and non-academic disciplines. [A] constructive and pragmatic independent review of the programme could be valuable."

ZDNet UK contacted CfH, to confirm whether it would undertake the independent review, and for a response to the academics' comments, but it refused to comment.

"They see us as an irritant," said Oxford University's Thomas.

The programme is the largest non-military IT project in the world. It was originally supposed to have cost £6.2bn, but ministers have warned that costs may now rise to as much as £20bn.

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