By Tony Collins
On 13 July 2011 CSC gave this written assurance to NHS Connecting for Health at its headquarters in Leeds.
“CSC can confirm that its subcontractor TPP will no longer be sending out letters to practices offering gifts in return for organising demonstrations of SystmOne.”
TPP has continued to offer gifts, and the Department of Health is now concerned enough to divulge the letters it has sent to CSC.
It can do little more, for GPs are not bound by NHS rules on the acceptance of gifts.
NHS Connecting for Health became involved after TPP sent out a letter in April 2011 offering tea at The Ritz or two tickets to a West End show of the GP choice.
“All we ask for in return is a short slot at your [local practice manager] meeting so we can demonstrate the benefits of SystmOne,” TPP said. “We’re [sic] a proven system and a real alternative to EMIS and Vision. With a third of the country’s patient records and more than 90,000 users, SystmOne is the leader in hosted clinical systems.
“Following recent success in the London area, TPP are looking to sponsor local practice manager meetings. We’ll provide lunch and refreshments for all your attendees. As a thank-you the organiser of the event will will also receive afternoon tea at The Ritz or two tickets to a West End show of their choice …Don’t wait around for an alternative that might not arrive – SystmOne is available, right here, right now…”
SystmOne is supplied to the NHS by CSC under the National Programme for IT, at a cost to taxpayers that remains confidential under NPfIT contracts. GPs can also buy the system directly under GP Systems of Choice. Some PCTs are said to be putting pressure on GP practices to replace existing systems with SystmOne.
Three months after TPP’s “tea at The Ritz” letter, on 6 July 2011, NHS Connecting for Health’s Programme Director, GP IT, wrote to CSC.
GPSoC [GP Systems of Choice] Marketing Activity by Subcontractor (TPP)
It has come to the attention of the Authority [Connecting for Health/Department of Health] that TPP have been sending letters to practices which include offers of gifts in return for organising meetings of practice managers during which SystmOne would be demonstrated. The gifts on offer include tea at The Ritz, two tickets to a West End show and £50 of Marks and Spencer vouchers.
The activities being carried out by TPP state that they are in relation to the provision of SystmOne through GP Systems of Choice. As the Supplier of SystmOne under the Framework Agreement, the Authority requests that CSC review these activities and provides a response to the Authority, by no later than 13 July, to advise whether TPP, as their subcontractor, will be continuing with such activity.”
CSC’s Primary Care Product Executive replied on 13 July:
“CSC was not aware of such activities being undertaken by TPP and immediately entered into dialogue with TPP.
CSC can confirm that its subcontractor TPP will not be sending out letters to practices offering gifts in return for organising demonstrations of SystmOne.”
In December 2011 Campaign4Change learned that TPP was offering £25 Marks and Spencer vouchers to GPs in return for a “short slot at your meeting so we can talk to you and demonstrate the benefits of SystmOne”. By that time TPP put the number of its users at more than 100,000.
We asked the Department of Health in December 2011 whether it approved of TPP’s incentives. It replied:
“We were made aware and asked the supplier about this activity. The supplier has subsequently confirmed that they have ceased offering incentives to GPs.”
Then we learned of a TPP offer of Hotel Chocolat chocolates.
“Happy Christmas and a Happy New Year from TPP.
“To find out why 1800 GP practices have already moved to SystmOne, just call me on the number below to book your short GP demo. Book before 24th December to get a box of Hotel Chocolat chocolates on the day of your demonstration…”
This month, February 2012, TPP sent out this message:
TPP sponsorship for your practice meeting
“TPP are looking to sponsor your practice manager meeting! We’ll provide lunch and refreshments for all of your attendees. As a thank-you, the organiser of the meeting will also receive £25 Marks and Spencer vouchers! All we ask for in return is a short slot at your meeting so we can talk to your attendees and demonstrate the benefits of SystmOne to those practices not yet using it. Anyone that books a SystmOne demonstration on the day of the meeting will also recieve £25 Marks and Spencer vouchers!
“You already know all the great reasons to move to SystmOne, why not share them with other practices in your area? The more practices that move to SystmOne, the more benefits you’ll see.
“To arrange sponsorship for your next meeting and take advantage of this great offer, just contact us on the number below or reply to this email.”
We asked DH why it had suggested that the gift offers had ceased when they hadn’t. Its reply:
“The Department contacted CSC (as the GPSoC supplier) about this activity by their subcontractor TPP. CSC confirmed that TPP would cease offering gifts to GPs in return for organising demonstrations of SystmOne. We have contacted CSC about TPP’s position which is not in line with the assurances previously provided.”
We also asked the DH why it was concerned about the gifts. It did not reply directly but sent us copies of the letter it had sent to CSC, and CSC’s reply.
Is the DH powerless to stop TPP offering gifts?
TPP told Pulse this week: “We momentarily stopped offering the incentives over Christmas but will be resuming during February … The incentives were offered only to GPs and practice managers and were completely optional.
“Our ‘Tea at the Ritz’ offer actually costs considerably less than the cost of catering for such a practice meeting. We at TPP appreciate that GPs and their staff are extremely busy and so any thank-you gifts we offer staff are simply that, a thank-you for an hour or two of their time.”
CSC has made no comment.
Pulse reports that the GP Systems of Choice framework agreement prohibits software providers from offering gifts to any servant of the authority or a PCT. The ban does not include GPs because they do not sign the framework. Suppliers can offer gifts to GPs without breaching the framework agreement says Pulse.
It quotes Dr Charlie Stuart-Buttle, a former chair of the EMIS user group and a GP in Tonbridge, Kent, as saying the incentives were an unacceptable way of going about things. It also quotes Dr Trefor Roscoe, a GP in Sheffield and former medical IT consultant, as saying the incentives were not a problem as long as the GPs felt the system in question was worth demonstrating in the first place.
Some will say that GPs are bombarded with offers of freebies from drug companies. So why does it matter if an IT company offers gifts?
Another argument is that drugs are different. GPs can stop offering drugs that become too expensive. They cannot simply stop using a GP system. It’s a big decision for any GP practice to choose a new system even with subsidies from the Department of Health under GP Systems of Choice GPs, while the GPSoC framework lasts. Any new GP system is likely to be a long-term commitment because of the disruption of changing.
GPs should surely choose their IT supplier on the basis of the facts and after shortlisting suppliers.
We dislike the expression “level playing field” but if applied here it would mean that GPs chose new systems only after demos at which all shortlisted suppliers offered tea at the Ritz or Marks and Spencer vouchers to certain GPs.
Alternatively the suppliers could agree that none offers gifts.