NHS computers 'failing to assist in patient care'

Patients are not seeing the benefits they should from computer systems brought in to operate alongside nurses on hospital wards, the Audit Commission says in a report published today.

The commission, which keeps a check on health service spending, claims that NHS staff have been rushed into producing statistics for NHS managers and expensive computer systems installed to help with this pay little consideration to the way nurses work.

The document comes within a week of the introduction of the NHS Information Management and Technology Strategy - a plan to computerise the entire NHS. At its launch, Tom Sackville, Under-Secretary for Health, said the strategy would bring in national standards and stringent financial controls for NHS computing. The health service has a poor track record for installing effective computer systems. The last few years have seen numerous examples of regions and individual hospitals spending millions of pounds on systems that have failed to prove their worth.

Nurses had hoped computers would help them to do their jobs better, but the report said that some of the systems did 'not reflect the ways in which nursing in acute wards is changing towards more patient-led care'.

Ray Rogers, executive director of the NHS Information Management Group, said yesterday that NHS staff should not have unrealistic expectations of computer systems. 'If these are put in to handle nurse rostering, then that's all they can be expected to do.'

He acknowledged that in the past many NHS computers had been put in place solely with a view to producing statistics, but said the latest approach was to build everything around patients and the way NHS staff carry out their jobs. The commission's national study found nurses were unenthusiastic about using computers because of frustrations with systems that produced more work for them but showed no obvious benefit for patients.

Further evidence of a mid-year cash crisis in the health service emerged yesterday when the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford said it was delaying or postponing non- urgent surgery. It is treating only emergency cases. Hundreds of patients who need non-urgent surgery such as hip replacements, hysterectomies and hernias, must wait until the next financial year starts on 1 April 1993.

Caring Systems: A Handbook for Managers of Nursing and Project Managers, the Audit Commission, HMSO; pounds 9.50.

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