The NHS: IT in a mess?

Ok, that’s a cheap shot title which I only used because "En Aithch Ess" rhymes with Mess.  The UK’s NHS is trying to pull off what we in American healthcare can only dream about —  a full computerization of the system with electronic medical records for everyone. When I looked into computerization of medical records in the UK about 6 years ago, they were already well ahead of the US, with some 50% of GPs (who account for 80% of all UK doctors) using computers in the exam room, and 25% using only computers and no paper charts. (Anecdotal evidence from New Zealand and the Netherlands suggests that those countries are even further ahead).  The reason for this leap forward in the UK was direct government funding for technology under John Major’s government in the mid-1990s.  Lack of funding is one of the main reasons for the slow rate of physician computerization in the US.

So before long before it started getting in trouble about what it knew when about Iraq, the Blair government made some very, very ambitious plans for the entire automation of the health care system in the UK. Jane Sarasohn Kahn, who is the mainstay of iHealthbeat’s opinion columns (and a wonderful person to boot) used to live in the UK and has written about the enormity of the scope of the plan.  The plan, by the way, included increasing spending on IT for the NHS from around $1.5 billion to $3.7 billion (2.3Bn GBP).

However, it appears that some of the contracting has been a little tricky, particularly the demand by the NHS that vendors take liability for data input mistakes made by system users.  Last week Lockheed, that well known health care IT firm (!), pulled out of bidding for the project.  The NHS’ attempt to go fast and do something very bold is in stark contrast to most other IT implementations in health care, which tend to take an inclusive softly-softly approach.  Perhaps the only comparable one in the US is Kaiser Permanente’s attempt to move to electronic medical records.  That has been characterized by infighting between the regions, continual vendor churn and much wasted effort and money. But Kaiser is well ahead of other American provider systems in what it’s trying to do–getting to the Holy Grail of electronic patient records. It’s not unreasonable to expect the same in the UK, although the potential for a disaster, like IRS’ long  computer modernization train wreck, does exist.

For much more on the NHS project as a whole see here.

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  1. You wrote this a long time ago, but yes, the project is still in a mess, i read a good article about the NHS IT problem. A lot needs to be done ASAP!