The National Audit Office is to scrutinise the NHS's new £6 billion computer system which aims to provide online records for 50 million patients.

The National Audit Office is to scrutinise the NHS's new £6 billion computer system which aims to provide online records for 50 million patients.

The public spending watchdog has stepped in at an early stage to assess the financial viability of the scheme after a series of Government projects have gone awry.

Last year Health Secretary John Reid announced that by 2010, every patient in England would have an individual NHS Care Record as part of the National Programme for IT.

Richard Granger, director general of NHS IT, said patients would start to feel the benefits of the system well before then, with many being able to look at their own records by 2005.

Health officials say the system will allow information about patients to be mobile for the first time, meaning that professionals across a wide range of organisations can access records which were previously kept in one place.

However, doctors have voiced their concerns about patient confidentiality with the potential of increased access to health information.

GPs who attended the local medical committee conference of the British Medical Association in June voted not to back the new service until the uncertainties about the system were addressed.

Fears have also been expressed that contracts worth £6bn have been signed with companies despite worries about the scheme.

The NAO probe will assess the design of the overall system, how much the local implementations of national systems will cost, whether there is enough money for training and whether doctors will support the new technology.

A NAO spokesperson told Computer Weekly magazine: "It is to be expected that such an important programme will be the subject of an NAO report to Parliament. The fact that we are starting work does not imply any particular concern with the way the programme is going.

"We are starting now because it appears to us that, with the letting of the major contracts and the beginning of the inevitably long process of implementation, it is a good moment for Parliament to be given a stocktake and a forward look."

A spokesman for the NHS welcomed the intervention by the audit office.

"It is only natural, and it has always been expected, that such an important programme should be the subject of an NAO report.

"Having largely completed our procurement phase and being well into initial implementation, this is naturally an appropriate time for such a report to be done and we welcome it," he said.

The watchdog has previously identified problems with contracts at the Department of Health, Inland Revenue, Passport Service, Criminal Records Bureau, Immigration and Nationality Directorate and Ministry of Defence.

The audit office will issue its report to Parliament next summer on whether the scheme is value for money, the magazine reported.