By Tony Collins
The Health Service Journal yesterday revealed details of NHS IT investment plans that have been costed at about £12.9bn over the next five years.
The HSJ’s award-winning technology correspondent Ben Heather says the sums currently involved – which could reduce as proposals are “reined in” – are on a par with the notorious National Programme for IT in the NHS.
He says that officials working on the plan have produced an estimate of between £10.9bn and £12.9bn for the cost of supporting proposals across 15 long-term plan “workstreams” ranging from creating personalised care to improving cancer survival.
The figures form part of the work of the digital and technology workstream for the long term plan, which is being developed by NHS England and NHS Improvement.
“The sum would be on par with the National Programme for IT, the most expensive push to improve IT systems in NHS history and an infamously costly and troubled project. It is likely to reduce substantially, however, as ambitions for the plan are negotiated and reined in over coming weeks.”
The plan is due to be published in late November or early December. The health secretary is known to be a keen advocate of new IT-related investments.
It is likely that a sizeable portion of the new £20bn planned for the NHS – which will be financed partly by tax increases that are due to be announced in the budget later this month – will go on NHS technology.
But the Health Service Journal suggests the investments will be controlled centrally, which may be a bad sign given that one of the major flaws in the failed £13bn NPfIT was that money was controlled centrally rather than by local groups of doctors and nurses.
On the face of it the current investment proposals bear no resemblance to the NHS IT programme NPfIT which was “dismantled” in 2011.
The NPfIT comprised a handful of specific major projects that were to be implemented nationally under the umbrella of “ruthless standardisation”.
The current proposals look very different. The investments fall into vague categories such as digitalising secondary care, improvements to IT infrastructure, data gathering and analytics.
The proposals have all the appearance of a different way the NHS has found to waste vast sums of public money.
It has never been acknowledged by the Treasury, NHS England or the Department of Health that the NPfIT wasted billions on spending that was invisible to the public, such as numerous consultants, years of globe-trotting by officials, first-class hotels across the world, sponsored conferences and unreported funds for marketing items that included DVDs and board games designed especially to promote the IT programme.
For officials, there’s nothing more exciting than going to work on a £13bn technology programme where money flows more freely than water. It’s no wonder officialdom is lobbying for the money.
No doubt it will be easy for officials to obtain the new billions. At any time in the recent history of the NHS it would have been easy on paper to justify £13bn for new NHS technology. Much of the £13bn could be justified simply enough by submitting plans to HM Treasury to modernise what already exists.
It was easy to justify the NPfIT. Tony Blair approved it at a Downing Street meeting that lasted 40 minutes. Computer Weekly obtained minutes of the Downing Street meeting after various FOI appeals.
But the NHS needs £13bn to be spent wisely on technology. The last thing the NHS needs is for Whitehall officials to be involved. History shows that Whitehall has the reverse Midas touch when it comes to major NHS IT investments. It is local groups of doctors and nurses who know how to spend the money wisely.
If either NHS England or the Department of Health and Social Care is involved in the new proposals for NHS IT investments – and they both are – it’s almost certain the new plans will end up as costly failures.
How would the public feel if they realised that a sizeable portion of their increased taxes for the NHS is almost certainly destined for the dustbin marked “mismanaged Whitehall IT schemes”.