NHS IT: The diamond encrusted golden supercomputer that never was

Why not all criticisms of the National Programme for IT are healthy

Caricaturing the £12bn NHS IT revamp as a failing supercomputer is reductionist and makes it harder to voice genuine criticisms of the project, says silicon.com's Nick Heath.

It's become fashionable to lambast the failure of the government's £12bn NHS 'supercomputer' and throw about claims that it has consumed vast amounts of taxpayers' money with no benefits to show for it.

A quick Google of 'NHS supercomputer' will fetch you a slew of headlines about the project, few of them flattering. Yet the idea of the project being about building a single £12bn computer is so hugely wide of the mark as to verge on the ridiculous; conjuring images of a jewel-encrusted megacomputer - one hewn from solid gold, with a diamond screen and a carry bag spun from angel hair to justify its 11-digit price tag.

The £12.7bn is being spent on at least 10 separate technology projects and not some mighty machine at the heart of the NHS controlling its every decision. And so far only part of the £12.7bn has been paid out because of cast iron contracts that make it impossible for suppliers to get paid until they deliver IT systems and infrastructure.


Contrary to popular belief the NHS IT programme has not flat lined
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

At the same time, a number of these projects have been successful in improving frontline care. Alder Hey Children's Hospital CIO Dr Zafar Chaudry recently told silicon.com how the Picture Archiving and Communication System has dramatically cut the time it takes for hospitals to share X-rays and other scans. And Grant Ingrams, co-chairman of the GP IT Committee for doctors' union the British Medical Association, told me that the time it takes to send patient records between doctors' surgeries has been cut from about eight weeks to mere seconds by the GP2GP electronic record transfer service.

Other wins include the N3 network, which provides broadband connections to hospitals and GP surgeries across England, and the central NHSmail service, which is reducing the cost for local health trusts of setting up and running their own email servers.

Of course none of this changes the rhetoric, to listen to some politicians or commentators it would appear that the NHS IT programme is a project at the end of its life, with the budget already blown and with failing systems gasping their last breath.

Just this week in the London Evening Standard Simon Jenkins warned how successive health secretaries "have simply capitulated to high-pressure salesmanship on a £12 billion NHS computer, for which no sane person has a good word. Everyone's health record will be hacked and available to every credit and insurance company within days"...