NHS computer project needs urgent review: MPs

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LONDON (Reuters), Apr 18 - A troubled and costly upgrade of National Health Service (NHS) computers is at risk of failure and should be urgently reviewed at the highest level, an influential committee of U.K. legislators said on Tuesday.

The 12 billion pound ($23.9 billion) National Programme for IT is already more than two years behind schedule, the Commons Public Accounts Committee noted in a report.

It said suppliers and firms overseeing the mammoth upgrade -- the largest nonmilitary computer project in history -- were "struggling to deliver." One of the largest, Accenture Ltd, withdrew in January after making a 240 million pound loss on the project.

"The program is not looking good," said committee chairman, Conservative MP Edward Leigh.

"Urgent remedial action is needed at the highest level if the long-term interests of NHS patients and taxpayers are to be protected."

To date more than 2 billion pounds has been spent, but with delays, political wrangling, and problems plaguing the project, some estimates of the final cost have ranged as high as 20 billion pounds.

"Skepticism is rife among the NHS clinicians whose commitment to the program is essential to its success," Leigh said. "And, four years down the line, the costs and benefits for the local NHS are unclear."

Get a grip

The committee called for the Department of Health to "get a grip" on what it and the NHS is spending and agree a delivery timetable with suppliers.

The project's aim is to improve treatment by making patient records, most of which are still on paper, available electronically throughout the country.

The program also includes a national e-mail system for NHS staff, computer accessible x-rays, and the "Choose & Book" outpatient appointments system that allows patients to book doctor consultations online.

Health Minister Lord Hunt said the committee was using out-of-date information from the National Audit Office and that substantial progress had been made.

"The NHS IT program is already being used by clinicians and bringing benefits for patients with digital technology transforming diagnosis and treatment every day," he added in a statement.

The group of MPs leveled specific criticism at iSoft, the troubled IT firm responsible for supplying around 60% of the software.

They slated the firm -- under investigation by U.K. financial watchdog the Financial Services Authority (FSA) for booking NHS revenues it was not paid -- for not having delivered its Lorenzo system despite previously saying the software was ready in 2004.

Committee member Richard Bacon went further, accusing the company of "merrily selling old software which predates the national program," adding: "You just couldn't make this up."

A spokesman for iSoft said the core elements of Lorenzo would not be delivered until early next year.

By Tim Castle

(Additional reporting by Marc Jones)

Last Updated: 2007-04-17 15:00:41 -0400 (Reuters Health)

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