NHS 'wasting millions on failed computer projects'

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The National Audit Office has launched a preliminary investigation into allegations that millions of pounds of NHS cash have been wasted on large- scale computer projects which have failed to deliver, are late, and in some cases may never work properly at all.

The move follows the widespread leaking of confidential documents from the NHS Executive, mounting criticism from health authority and NHS Trust chief executives of the executive's Information Management Group which runs the projects, and an assessment yesterday by the British Medical Association that its operation seems to be "rotten at the core". A BMA spokesman said: "Things do seem to be going horribly wrong."

One of the failures is the pounds 100m Hospital Information Support System (HISS) which was launched without a full business case appraisal in 1988. It has been subject to delay and disappointing performance. Documents leaked to Radio 4's The World This Weekend and seen by the Independent show that a critical National Audit Office report on the scheme published earlier this year was watered down. Its first draft contained much stronger criticism of the executive, and its information management group, for its oversight of the project.

Another system, the Read codes, which allocates a computer code to patients' medical conditions, has been plagued by implementation problems. Questions have been raised about the financial arrangement under which their inventor, Dr James Read, a GP, sold the idea to the NHS and then continued to work on it on a cost plus 30 per cent basis while charging NHS bodies a licence fee to use it. A senior Welsh Office official has warned the system is "in danger of collapse".

More than pounds 130,000 is being spent to correct the NHS numbers project, aimed at providing a unique 10-digit number for all patients. But it issued the same number to more than 7,500 newborn babies, generating 50 duplicate numbers a week earlier this year.

Another scheme, Memphis, aimed at creating a computer network for senior NHS managers, was approved without an option appraisal, according to a senior health department economist who was asked to comment on it overnight when consultants were due to start work on it three days later. He condemned the pounds 1m scheme as "unacceptable", according to a leaked memo, protesting that the preferred solution was "the only one on offer". The papers also suggest contracts may have breached Civil Service guidelines and EU directives.

Copies of slides from an internal assessment by the IMG last year, of progress since 1992, suggest that of 18 objectives set then, only 4 had been achieved.

Chris Smith, Labour's new health spokesman, yesterday called for Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, to intervene. The department's only comment came yesterday from the NHS Executive, which said the projects involved integration of more than pounds 2bn of information-technology systems which the NHS has successfully installed over the past decade. That programme was "well advanced" and "problems are few", despite the initiative requiring "managerial and technical change on a considerable scale."