By Tony Collins
Interviewed by a BBC Radio 4’s “Today” presenter James Naughtie this morning, Simon Burns, the minister responsible for the NHS’s £11.4bn National Programme for IT [NPfIT], explained why he has no plans to stop the NPfIT.
Burns was responding to a report of the National Audit Office, which was published today, which questioned the value-for-money of the billions spent on the detailed care records systems at the heart of the NPfIT.
Just before Burns’s interview, Naughtie spoke to Richard Bacon MP, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, who called for the NPfIT to be scapped.
Naughtie asked Burns: “Do you accept that critique from your colleague Richard Bacon?”
Burns replied: “Yes. We inherited a system we would never have devised ourselves. To have a centralised top-down approach where everyone had to change their systems to conform to the new system was the wrong way forward and was, as it has been shown, a gross waste of public money.
“But I think everyone will agree it is crucial to have an effective IT system in a modernised NHS because when patients go to see their doctor, or go to hospitals to see nurses or consultants, they do not want to have to be explaining to each different person their medical background.”
Naughtie said that Richard Bacon had made the point that a national system is not necessary, and that it’s rare for patients in one part of the country to need treatment in another part. So why do patient records have to be available at every NHS site? Why do it that way, asked Naughtie.
Burns: “That was the model the last government decided to go ahead with and we think they made serious mistakes… If you take the north, the midlands and east of England, after 10 years and £6.4bn of money spent, only four out of 97 trusts have had their hospital records installed. That is a farce and an utter waste of money.
Naughtie: “If it is a farce why not stop it now?”
Burns: “Because everyone is agreed that to improve patient care in a modernised NHS one has to embrace IT in a responsible and realistic way for the reasons I have already given.
“What we have been looking at in the interim is allowing local trusts to adapt their existing systems rather than having to get rid of them and bring in new systems.”
Naughtie: “How much of the £4.3bn that hasn’t been spent will need to be spent to make that happen?”
Burns: “We have already saved £1.3bn with the changes. But what we are doing to move forward is we have set up a major projects initiative which is going to look at this.
“The Department of Health and the Cabinet Office are going to look at this to see how we can move forward in a way that is not going to waste taxpayers’ money but will achieve having an IT system for modernised NHS that actually does serve patients, and doctors and nurses who treat them, so that it is effective and delivers.
“For those who doubt that can happen, if you look at the Royal Free Hospital [Hampstead] about three years ago they had installed by BT the system the government wanted and it was chaotic.
“They have now worked on that, adapted it, and it is now working to a way the Royal Free thinks is fantastic because it is improving patient care and it is part of a modernised process that they welcome and have embraced with vigour.”
The interview ended with Burns giving the impression that a review of the NPfIT by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority will not have the option of halting or cancelling the national programme.