Potential savings of at least £1 billion could be made by the next government through sorting out the troubled NHS IT programme, according to a new study by think-tank 2020health.org.

The largest civilian IT project in the world, the £12-billion National Programme for Information Technology (NPfIT) was rolled out by the government back in 2002 to much fanfare, largely on the promise that it would link 30,000 GPs to nearly 300 hospitals across England and provide NHS staff with access to medical information at the mere touch of a button.

Essentially, the programme was constructed to bring together the highly fragmented IT system across the health service across England, but its potential has been soured by substantial delays and budget over-runs, and key parts of the programme are now in danger on failing altogether.

“In retrospect it is clear that the Programme tried to do too much, too quickly, with a limited focus on early winners to gain credibility and acceptance with the NHS,” said 2020health.org. “There was a collective failure to get the Programme positioned as an enabler for transforming healthcare services, and gain full clinical engagement and local ownership”.

But according to report author John Cruickshank, getting NHS IT right is “critical” for an incoming government. “IT-enabled new ways of working are essential to enable the NHS to meet ever-growing health demands whilst also achieving its productivity targets and improved outcomes”, he stressed.

To that end, Fixing NHS IT – an Action Plan for a New Government, puts forward no less than 30 recommendations, all to be executed within a year of new government, that it believes will “save more than £1 billion and lead to significantly improved patient outcomes,” said Julia Manning, Chief Exec of 2020health.org.

For one, under the rescue plan future national IT approaches should only be done “in limited circumstances”, as primary care trusts “should be free to set their own direction to meet local clinical priorities, provided nationally agreed standards are met”.

In addition, it calls for “a radical reorientation and downsizing of the central IT organisation”, so that it becomes more transparent and accountable to the NHS, as well as consolidating and strengthening IT provision at the local level.

Suspend SCR launch
Furthermore, in agreement with the British Medical Association, the report says the current launch of the somewhat controversial Summary Care Records should be halted, so that a review of aspects of the project, such as its clinical validity and security issues, can be carried out.

Earlier this month, the BMA called for suspension of the current programme to upload electronic patients records to a national database on “serious concerns” that the process is happening too quickly, because, it claims, a number of significant issues remain that need resolving resolution prior to a full-scale roll out of the scheme.