When it comes to IT, the NHS is in the Stone Age

The National Programme for IT (NPfIT) is now four years behind schedule and will cost £300 million more than planned, according to the National Audit Office.

The electronic care records service, allowing doctors to access patients' medical histories, is now not expected to be fully deployed before 2014 at the earliest.

If there are two truths about NPfIT they are these: we desperately need a nationwide NHS IT system; and the present method is not the way to do it.

What a wasted opportunity - at a time when the country would benefit from a secure system allowing doctors to access patients' prescriptions, allergies and basic medical information, those in charge are spending colossal sums of money - £12.7 billion at the latest estimate - to deliver ... well, nothing very much.

Don't forget the unseen drain here: the medical software companies have had to divert large amounts of time and money in making their systems conform to Connecting for Health's (CfH's) plans and diktats - resources that could more profitably have been spent in developing the functionality of their existing systems.

The ground rules for NPfIT are changing as well. Having assumed that all confidential information could be uploaded without explicit patient consent, CfH is now coming to the dreadful realisation that consent will have to be obtained individually. So much for quick nationwide uploading of the summary care record. Those with medical IT expertise have been saying for years the present plan is the wrong way to do it.

Currently, the system is unreliable and questions remain over the confidentiality of its medical information. At a time when the rest of the world is moving towards fast, integrated and secure IT, the NHS is in the Stone Age, moving backwards; £12 billion is a lot of money. It could pay for numbers of nurses to help out on overstretched wards. It could provide new clinics, new hospitals and extensions to GP premises, yet it is being poured down the open maw of NPfIT with little to show so far beyond an unwieldy appointments system.

Is there really no one in the NHS with the wisdom and guts to stand up and say, 'Stop! Let's go about this more sensibly'?

Dr Lancelot is a GP from Lancashire. Email him at GPcolumnists@haymarket.com.

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