By Tony Collins
Were GPs guinea pigs for live testing of the new national NHS e-Referral Service?
Between 2004 and 2010 the Department of Health marked as confidential its lists of problems with national NPfIT systems, in particular Choose and Book.
So the Health and Social Care Information Centre deserves praise for publishing a list of problems when it launched the national “e-Referrals” system on Monday. But that list was 9 pages long.
The launch brought unsurprised groans from GPs who are used to new national systems going live with dozens of known problems.
The e-Referral Service, built on agile “techniques” and based on open source technology, went live early on Monday to replace “Choose and Book” for referring GP patients to hospitals and to other parts of the NHS.
Some GPs found they could not log on.
“As expected – cannot refer anything electronically this morning. Surprise surprise,” said one GP in a comment to “Pulse” on its article headlined “Patient referrals being delayed as GPs unable to access e-Referrals system on launch day.”
A GP practice manager said: “Cannot access in south London. HSCIC debacle…GPs pick up the pieces. Changing something that wasn’t broken.”
Another GP said: “I was proud never to have used Choose and Book once. Looks like this is even better!”
Other GPs said they avoided using technology to refer patients.
“Why delay referral? Just send a letter. (Some of us never stopped).”
Another commented: “I still send paper referrals – no messing, you know it has gone, no time wasted.”
Dr Faisal Bhutta, a GP partner in Manchester, said his practice regularly used Choose and Book but on Monday morning he couldn’t log in. “You can’t make a referral,” he said.
The Health and Social Care Information Centre has apologised for the disruption. A statement on its website says:
“There are a number of known issues, which are currently being resolved. It is not anticipated that any of these issues will pose a clinical safety risk, cause any detriment to patient care or prevent users from carrying out essential tasks. We have published the list of known issues on our website along with details of how to provide feedback .”
But why did the Centre launch the e-Referral Service with 9 pages of known problems? Was it using GPs as guinea pigs to test the new system?
The Health and Social Care Information Centre is far more open, less defensive and a better communicator than the Department of Health ever was when its officials were implementing the NPfIT.
But is the HSCIC’s openness a good thing if it’s accompanied by a brazen and arrogant acceptance that IT can be introduced into the NHS without a care whether it works properly or not?
In parts of the NHS, IT works extraordinarily well. Those who design, test, implement and support such systems care deeply about patients. In many hospitals the IT reduces risks and helps to improve the chances of successful outcomes.
But in other parts of the NHS are some technology enthusiasts – at the most senior board level – who seem to believe that all major IT implementations will be flawed and will be improved by user feedback.
The result is that IT that’s inadequately designed, tested and implemented is foisted on doctors and nurses who are expected to get used to “teething” troubles.
This is dangerous thinking and it’s becoming more and more prevalent.
Many poorly-considered implementations of the Cerner Millennium electronic patient record system have gone live in hospitals across England with known problems.
In some cases, poor implementations – rather than any faults with the system itself – have affected the care of patients and might have contributed to unnecessary deaths when records needed urgently were not available, or hospitals lost track of urgent appointments.
A CQC report in March 2015 said IT was a possible factor in the death of a patient because NHS staff were unable to access electronically-held information.
In another incident a coroner criticised a patient administration system for being a factor in the death of three year-old Samuel Starr whose appointment for a vital scan got lost in the system.
Within NHS officialdom is a growing cultural acceptance that somehow a poor IT implementation is different to a faulty x-ray machine that delivers too high a dose of radiation.
NHS officials will always brush off IT problems as teething and irrelevant to the care and safety of patients. Just apologise and say no patient has come to any harm.
So little do IT-related problems matter in the NHS that unaccountable officials at the HSCIC have this week felt sufficiently detached from personal accountability to launch a national system knowing there are dozens of problems with the use of it.
Their attitude seems to be: “We can’t know everything wrong with the system until it’s live. So let’s launch the system and fix the problems as GPs give us their feedback.”
This is a little like the NHS having a template letter of regret to send to relatives and families of patients who die unexpectedly in the care of the NHS. Officials simply fill in the appropriate name and address. The NHS can then fix the problems as and when patients die.
It’s surely time that bad practice in NHS IT was eradicated. Board members need to question more. When necessary directors must challenge the blind positivism of the chief executive.
Some managers can learn much about the culture of care at the hospitals that implement IT successfully.
Patients, nurses and doctors do not exist to tell hospital managers and IT suppliers when electronic records are wrong, incomplete, not available or are somebody else’s record with a similar name.
And GPs do not exist to be guinea pigs for testing and providing feedback on new national systems such as the e-Referral Service.