Pull plug on NHS e-records - MPs

By Nick Triggle
Health correspondent, BBC News

media captionAndrew Lansley says the IT system is being changed "to one genuinely led by the NHS organisations themselves"

Ministers should consider pulling the plug on the central part of the NHS IT programme in England, MPs say.

The Public Accounts Committee said mounting problems with the electronic records system were making the £7bn project "unworkable".

The group said the scheme - aimed at reducing the use of paper files - was beset by delays and uncertainty.

If it was stopped, the remaining budget could then be spent on a better system, they said.

E-records are part of the overall £11.4bn IT programme.

The scheme was launched in 2002 with the aim of revolutionising the way the health service uses technology.

It includes developments such as digital X-rays and fast internet connections.

Under the e-records scheme, every patient was to get an electronic file that could be used when they were treated in the NHS.

The MPs said it was a "worthwhile aim, but one that has proved beyond the capacity" of government to deliver.

It has already been announced that the scheme will no longer be universal, and large chunks of the NHS have now opted out - in London, no GP and few hospitals will take part.

This scaling back means it is up to local health chiefs to develop their own systems that will be compatible with the national one.

But the MPs warned there was no clear indication from government about how this could work or what the extra costs would be.

They also highlighted the lack of value that the government was getting from suppliers.

One example cited included services being provided by BT which were costing £9m to introduce on each site, despite the parts of the NHS outside the programme only paying £2m for the same system.

Coupled to this were the ongoing and costly delays - it is already six years behind schedule - and problems where e-records have been installed, the MPs added.

And with £2.7bn spent so far on e-records, they suggested it might be time to plough the rest of the budget into something else.

'Massive risk'

Committee chairman Margaret Hodge said: "Trying to create a one-size-fits-all system in the NHS was a massive risk and has proven to be unworkable.

"It should now urgently review whether it is worth continuing with the remaining elements of the care records system."

She said if it was stopped officials could then use the remaining £4.3bn to buy other systems that were proven to work and provided good value for money.

However, whether this is possible remains unclear as the committee was told it might cost more to escape from the contracts than fulfil them.

The Tories were highly critical of the IT programme in opposition and since forming the coalition government costs have been reduced.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley blamed the problems on the system inherited from Labour.

He said the committee findings would be considered alongside an internal government review which is currently being carried out.

"We will shortly announce our plans for even stronger action to deliver value for money for taxpayers and the NHS."

But he added: "It is not a situation which we can simply walk away [from]."

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