Science: Lean and hungry after a visit to the doctor: GPs spell squeezed profits for software firms, says Lynne Curry

The seduction of general practitioners by the grey keys and green lights of office computers was initiated by a Midlands software company, Meditel, whose intentions, at least at first, were not to corner the market.

Department of Health figures suggest that today 80 per cent of the 10,000 general practices in the UK have installed computer systems, a sharp rise from the figure of 30 per cent only three years ago. 'The general practices in the UK lead the world in terms of usage of computers by GPs,' says Dr Simon Jenkins, a GP in Bury, Lancashire.

Meditel began by offering free computer systems in exchange for access to data which could then be sold to drug and pharmaceutical companies and used for marketing. It was this wrongfooted generosity, some say, that has inclined the medical profession to believe ever since that free is just about the right price to pay for becoming computerised.

Dr Jenkins, chairman of three medical sub-committees looking into information technology, describes GPs as 'perceptive purchasers'. Their unwillingness to part with large sums of money means that computer systems in surgeries have remained at very modest price levels. An average figure is around pounds 3,000 per GP, and the medical software sector (at least at surgery level) is one of the slimmest cats in an industry where a few thousand here and there is usually irrelevant.

Meditel, now AAH Meditel, no longer gives away systems and has switched course to a more conventional trading arrangement. With Vamp, it currently shares dominance of the 100 companies active in primary health care. However, this figure is set to shrink as the industry is subjected to rigorous new regulations from the Department of Health, brought in this month.

The department's Requirements For Accreditation expect, among other things, that all medical software should be compatible, that it should be able to speak to family health service authorities' computers and that its fundholding functions be standardised. According to Dr Jenkins, software houses will then be 'squeezed from both ends'; at one end by 'careful' doctors and at the other by these strict new requirements. 'With pressure from both ends, those without capital behind them will find it hard to survive.'

He considers the marriage of public health and private technological enterprise a highly successful one, especially in terms of individual patient care. Doctors can now search through a database to find patients who should be vaccinated; those who should have cervical smears; those who have been prescribed particular drugs. They were able to react quickly in recent meningitis outbreaks by vaccinating vulnerable patients with a speed that surprised the Department of Health.

AAH Meditel has a turnover of between pounds 11 and pounds 12m, and with AMC, which it took over in 1992, has about 22 per cent of the market (about 2,200 surgeries). AAH Meditel's 1992-93 profit of pounds 1.5m, comparatively low for a software house, reflects the degree of research and development it has to undertake. Vamp, now owned by Reuters, is slightly ahead with 25 per cent.

Behind them lies a layer of medium-sized companies which supply between 400 and 800 surgeries each. They include Genisyst, Emis, Amsys, Medicus and Hollowbrook Computer Services. Hollowbrook was set up in 1986 by Dr Laurence Atkinson, former head of information technology at Sheffield University. It now has 70 employees and works on a 'bundled' approach of providing the whole system.

Mike Wray, the general manager, said the sector had remained reasonably diversified in spite of its small base because different systems offered different advantages: 'Some are more easy to use than others; some have a terrific speed of operation; some huge storage capabilities; some have been very aggressively sold and marketed. I think we are probably unique in that we don't have any sales force and the company has grown from personal recommendations.'

With only 20 per cent of GP surgeries left to convert from brown packets of traditionally indecipherable handwriting to clean, green on-screen notes, medical software companies are looking for other ways to keep their share of the market.

The coming year should be interesting for medical software companies, as the government stipulations result in mergers and takeovers. The Department of Health has made it clear to general practices that only systems that conform to the regulations will qualify for the standard 50 per cent contribution. Announcing the new controls in December 1992, Tom Sackville, the Health Minister, said his impression was that doctors and nurses were enthusiastic about the use of computers in patient care, 'but incompatibility in existing systems has to be eliminated in future to ensure that we get the maximum benefits from our investment in IT'.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions