Jeremy Hunt has announced new plans to shift the NHS into the twenty first century by removing all vestiges of paper by 2018. While computerising health records sounds mundane and complicated, the Health Secretary has done his best to make the plans appear logical and advantageous. In his announcement, Hunt says:
‘The NHS cannot be the last man standing as the rest of the economy embraces the technology revolution. It is crazy that ambulance drivers cannot access a full medical history of someone they are picking up in an emergency - and that GPs and hospitals still struggle to share digital records.’
The interim stages to Hunt's ultimate goal sound realistic. Records held online by March 2015 if you so choose, paperless referrals, followed by the secure linking of health records that can be passed around different parts of the NHS. There’s economic logic behind the plans too. The Department of Health have brought in PricewaterhouseCoopers, who concluded £4.4 billion can be saved by modernising their administrative operations; money that could be used to treat patients.
Alas, to quote Shirley Bassey, ‘the joke is rather sad, that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating’. Pretty much everything Hunt announced today was part of the £12 billion stupendous disaster known as the National Programme for IT. The project was due to include a similar electronic linking of records, scrapping paper as well an NHS-wide email system. Although the latter half was brought to life, the rest was scrapped and the final bill to the taxpayer was double the original budget. When finally axed, then-Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said:
‘Labour’s IT programme let down the NHS and wasted taxpayers’ money by imposing a top-down IT system on the local NHS, which didn’t fit their needs’
Hunt is thankfully aware of the dangers and has promised to do things differently. Instead of a huge central database, local NHS groups will build their own databases that will be magically linked together. It's localism in action (hopefully), according to Hunt:
'Previous attempts to crack this became a top down project akin to building an aircraft carrier. We need to learn those lessons - and in particular avoid the pitfalls of a hugely complex, centrally specified approach. Only with world class information systems will the NHS deliver world class care.'
Much like Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit system for welfare, the success or failure of this project will rest on good cooperation between private contractors and the government to ensure the individual systems can speak to each other. If they get it wrong, it will be another public sector IT disaster, another failed attempt to reform the NHS and more ammunition for Labour. The stakes couldn’t be much higher.