NHS patients at risk from millennium bug

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PATIENTS could be at risk in at least 45 NHS Trusts, who have reported they are "not confident that all their clinical equipment would continue functioning normally in the year 2000".

A National Audit Office report on the threat posed by the millennium computer bug last night prompted swift reaction from the Government, which put "rigorous new measures" in place "to ensure that patient care and safety are not compromised". But fears that the action being taken is too little, too late, are compounded by the facts: that last night's report excludes Scotland and Wales; that 28 per cent of NHS Trusts in England - 118 trusts in all - did not even bother to respond to a NAO survey; and summarised results of a survey by the NHS Executive will not be known until the middle of next month, more than 10 weeks after the deadline for returns.

Last night's report also disclosed that 16 of the 100 Health Authorities in England ignored the NAO investigation, and 37 of the authorities that did bother to reply said "they had not yet collected information on GP practices in their area". Of the authorities who replied, 26 said "they were not confident that GPs' systems would be year 2000 compliant in time".

It is estimated that more than 8,000 English GP practices are computerised, with as many as 29 million patient records dependent to some extent on IT systems.

The NAO last night refused to name the authorities or trusts that had not bothered to respond to its survey. Asked about Scotland and Wales, the NAO said the implications of its report would be picked up by the Scottish and Welsh offices.

All computers and clinical equipment are at risk from the millennium bug; the inability of some programs to distinguish between the year 1900 and 2000, when two-digit years go to 00 from the end of next year.

The NAO report noted that the NHS Executive had already told all trusts and authorities "that it is impossible to predict the seriousness of malfunctions but in extreme circumstances failure or malfunction of equipment could even put patients lives at risk".

Against that background, only 63 NHS trusts, a fifth of those who replied to the questionnaire, told the NAO that their clinical equipment would be year 2000 compliant by the end of this year - on target for the NHS executive deadline.

More than a third of those who replied, 106 trusts, said they would need to work through to the end of April to complete the programme.

"One-fifth of NHS trusts [57] were not confident that they would succeed in ensuring that their clinical equipment would continue functioning normally in year 2000," the report said. It then added: "The likelihood of failure in medical devices is at present unknown."