IT - here we go again...

Yesterday, a government report leaked to the Health Service Journal revealed that the NHS spend £86 million per year on thousands of websites which are often poorly designed, difficult to locate and irrelevant to patient needs. Amidst a monumental budget deficit and spending cuts across Whitehall, the NHS budget will be ring-fenced but expenditure of this scale for substandard IT services shows that there is room for substantial savings.

Up to one-third of around 4,000 NHS websites have “at least one notable deficit in standards”, the report said. Problems have ranged from poor navigation to simply poor content.  A Google search of the domain produces more than 86 million different pages, many of which are deemed inaccessible and/or useless for the average patient. Half of the websites fail to even provide a contact email address.

Unfortunately, this is systematic of wider IT issues within the NHS and the public sector. Taxpayers are just not being provided with a good service, and nor are they being given value for money as schemes are so often overpriced. You have to wonder why the NHS has the need to host so many sites.

In terms of embracing technology, the NHS’s entrance into the 21st Century has been very rocky. In the US, they have been using the World Wide Web for some time; utilising it to improve patient care, communication and well-being. With only half of the NHS websites providing email addresses, this cannot be happening here. Waste must be cut out in these times of austerity and by drawing on technology we can go some way to doing so, even if by merely replacing paper correspondence with a digital alternative.

Action must be taken over the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) in particular. This is the Department of Health’s (DoH) £12 billion project to move the NHS towards a single, centrally-mandated electronic care record for patients and to connect 30,000 GP’s to 300 hospitals. However, it is also one of the biggest examples of extreme waste and shoddy management in central government projects in recent times.

The government released a white paper last month setting out wide-ranging changes to the NHS. As our post assessing the White Paper reported, the NPfIT was not mentioned at all. NHS Chief Executive Sir David Nicholson vaguely told a press briefing at the papers launch that,

"In the next four weeks we will be making an announcement on the NPfIT and how we will reconfigure and change it to reflect the bottom-up changes in this document."

Hardly swift action, so we’ll have to wait for the details. However, as John O’Connell blogged on back in May, trusts have already started to abandon the £12bn flop for their own individually negotiated contracts.  We can only sit and wait to see how the coalition reforms the programme and to see if they go far enough. In our book, How to Cut Public Spending (and still win an election), we called for it to be scrapped altogether, saving the taxpayer over £1 billion annually over a seven year period.

The truth is that the NHS is riddled with waste, as are other departments, most notably with regard to IT.  Websites are often all expensive-style with no substance, IT provision in the public sector is too costly in general and yet the DoH cites a £120 million saving as a result of implementing NPfIT. The reality is that a saving ten times as large can be made if the scheme is terminated, before more taxpayers’ money is squandered. The Government’s history regarding public sector IT provision just couldn’t get any worse.  We have to hope for a much brighter future.

Jago Pearson

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