Blood chief resigns over computer 'disaster' fear

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The head of computing at the Oxford blood transfusion centre has resigned, claiming that the National Blood Authority's attempts to introduce a national computer system to control blood stocks are "showing classic signs of being a runaway disaster".

Les Hitchins, 43, says in a letter to his MP, a copy of which was passed to Computer Weekly magazine, and has been seen by the Independent, that he also blames the "secretive nature and poor communications" of those in charge at the National Blood Authority for delays in the project, which would replace the 15 computer systems in the blood tranfusion centres in England with one.

Managers fear that the two years allowed from the installation of the system at one centre to a full national system allows no leeway for any problems to be ironed out. At present, each bag of blood carries a six- digit code to identify it. A nationwide system would give each bag a centrally-allocated number 16 digits long, allowing far more information to be stored on each bag.

But managers warn that ensuring that the data is transferred correctly in moving from the six-digit system to the 16-digit system will require enormous care to avoid mistakes which could prove lethal. For example, if a bag is encoded with the wrong blood group and given to a patient it could lead to massive clotting and death.

The centres have been plagued by problems in the past eight months. Earlier this month they had to recall thousands of blood bags after a fault in manufacturing led to a national shortage of blood products.

A national computer system would let managers in each centre see what blood products are available nationally and would have eased the problem both of recalling the faulty bags and of distributing the remaining stocks. After the faulty bags were recalled, a number of operations had to be cancelled because of blood shortages.

Staff morale has also plummeted as five of the centres face closure under plans by the NBA to save pounds 10m.

But no supplier has yet been chosen for the nationwide system, and Gary Barr, the national computing manager for the NBA - which controls the centres - admits that it now might not be installed anywhere before the new year. The NBA says it is still waiting for the Treasury to approve its choice of supplier from a shortlist of two, in a contract which will be worth about pounds 5m, but has no idea when approval will be given.

Mr Hitchins, who was computing manager of the Oxford Blood Transfusion centre, says in his letter to Andrew Smith, MP for Oxford East, that he resigned because he fears that "when (or if) the national computer system is eventually implemented, it will be a disaster." Mr Hitchins, who is now working for a private computer contractor serving the Oxford centre, was unable to comment to the Independent because company rules forbid staff from talking to the press.