Hospital trusts are spending pounds 220m a year on computer systems but they "frequently" fail to provide any benefits to patients, according to the Audit Commission.
In its latest study it also found that hospital systems, containing sensitive patient information, were insecure. "Public and practitioner concerns over security are on the increase," the report says.
Paul Durham, principal author of the report, entitled For Your Information, said yesterday there were many areas where computers were not secure. For instance, junior doctors are not given their own passwords and use those of their senior colleagues. "Screens are left switched on so anyone can access them. Hospital trust managements have got to pay serious attention to security policies," Mr Durham said.
The report says that although hospitals had received substantial funding to establish systems there was no clear link between levels of expenditure and benefits to patient care.
Staff often suspected the accuracy of data they could find on the computer and so failed to use it. Nor was the data relevant in many cases. "A survey of medical staff found that 40 per cent made little use of coded clinical data because they are not clinically useful and often inappropriate for the use for which they were collected," it states.
Mr Durham said that, on the wards, information systems could be very useful to staff in accessing laboratory reports, in recalling patient information and in passing information on to GPs more easily. Too often this was not the case, he said. "One GP told us the first time he knew his patient had been in hospital was when he was back in his surgery after the operation."
In general they found that hospital systems were poorly designed and that their use tended to be for administration rather than patient care.
The British Medical Association, which is increasingly concerned about the confidentiality of computer systems in the NHS, welcomed the report. Dr Fleur Fisher, head of ethics, science and information at the BMA, said: "Patients must be reassured that any information they give to their doctors is held in a safe and confidential way."
9 For Your Information: A study of information management systems in the acute hospital; Audit Commission; HMSO; pounds 10.Reuse content