BT lays foundation for NHS IT turnaround

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The Independent Online

BT claimed the troubled project to upgrade the National Health Service's IT infrastructure has turned the corner after the telecoms provider completed the roll-out of a new broadband network two months ahead of schedule.

The new network, dubbed N3, connects GP surgeries with hospitals, pharmacies and other NHS sites and lays the foundation for new digital services such as electronic patient records, online appointment reservations and remote diagnosis. BT has completed 18,000 connections ahead of schedule, covering nearly 97 per cent of UK GPs and one million NHS staff.

BT also said it has won five additional contracts with NHS organisations worth a combined £36m.

The programme to upgrade the NHS IT systems is the largest non-military IT project ever undertaken. Last year the £12.4bn project suffered a barrage of negative publicity amid claims it was running two years behind schedule. The project has been criticised for cost over-runs, technology failures and complaints by medical staff. The financial crisis at key software supplier iSoft and the exit of Accenture during 2006 bolstered the perception that the project was in turmoil.

However, BT believes the completion of N3 sets the tone for a turnaround in the project's fortunes. Patrick O'Connell, the managing director of BT Health, said the programme had "turned the corner and has started to realise some of the goals it set out to achieve. N3 is the foundation for putting English medicine online".

Mr O'Connell joined BT two years ago. With 25 years experience of running major projects, including the unification of Nato's air command systems, he moved to ensure that BT improved its performance within the high-profile project.

"We have put the processes in place and our performance has improved dramatically over the past two years," he said. He said that BT still expects to turn a profit on the project "at the end of the day".

Mr O'Connell said that halfway through the project, significant challenges lie ahead but he remained confident that BT would deliver. In addition to N3, BT is building the "spine" of the NHS IT system - the largest transactional database in the world - and expects to begin the full roll-out in early 2008.

BT also acts as the local service provider in London, a problematic project that has been delayed by a change in software supplier.