E-Health Insider has had a bumper response from NHS staff sharing their experiences of the first week of Contact, the new NHS email system, following last week’s news on the problems some readers have experienced.

A major frustration appears to be the difficulty or inability to configure Contact to operate within Microsoft Outlook – a serious problem given that the NHS this week signed a nine-year corporate licensing deal with Microsoft which will see Outlook even further entrenched as the standard email client in the NHS.

Others complained about the time it took to access the service and problems with logging on and with calendar and contacts functionality, although were quite positive about the new service. The help desk service provided by Cable and Wireless was another repeated source of complaints. 

In response to these concerns, the National Programme for IT have told E-Health Insider that they are arranging more staff on the helpdesk and better handling of support calls.

One frustrated hospital-based user told us: "I tried to log on on Monday to find that Outlook Express no longer worked, so I tried to logon to the web page to be told that my account was locked; I managed to get it reset by our administrator.

“Since then, every time I try and log on I am asked to change my password but the password change page times out. I emailed Contact and received an automated number but I still can’t get on to the new service and haven’t heard anything else back."

A GP, who asked to remain anonymous, told us how his practice had been using an NHSmail account to allow patients to send in repeat prescription requests:  “We set up Outlook to act as a POP3 client with rules to provide autoresponses and print the e-mails on the fax printer, and messages could be deleted automatically after 14 days from the server. The whole thing ran virtually unattended, minimal staff training needed and the messages arrived in the same place as faxes. Perfect!"

The problems started, though, when Contact became live. "Despite assurances that Contact would be the same as previous I can report that there is no POP3 server, and any attempt to configure Outlook to act as an IMAP client fails using the settings in the help page.

"Requests for help and information about the reappearance of POP3 mail go unanswered.

“We are left with accessing the e-mail via a web browser manually and some staff training we had not planned to do. Using a web browser is a painful process as our NHS Net connection is still a 64K ISDN with 20+ PCs on this side."

The GP concluded: “Come back EDS, you may be a frying pan but this is a fire."

Another primary-care based user told EHI: "Could not get on at all on Monday, it’s Friday now and I still don’t have proper access. If I try and do more than 2 or 3 things (like open an email, then try and reply to it) it generally freezes and you have to close down Internet Explorer and start again.

“Their helpdesk told me that there were ‘problems’, that they were dealing with it, and that they’d get back to me shortly. But heck, if these IT things worked like they were supposed to we’d have nothing to whinge about."

A Primary Care Trust IT director told us: "Have had complaints from practice managers, speed being one, that the forwarding is not working. I rang the helpdesk on Monday, they said they would get back to me and have not.

"Most of us just set up forwarding to our eSMTP email and just grudgingly use NHSMail for confidential patient-identifiable emails. If we don’t get the forwarded notices that our passwords are about to expire, we will all be locked out, which at the speed of response of the helpdesk is worrying to say the least.

“Our Shared Services department will not support us using NHSMail with Outlook because of the support work it would involve, so we only have the webmail facility.  We are all very heavy Outlook users with shared calendars, huge distribution lists, hundreds of contacts, use Tasks and Notes, and I also resent having to log in every 30 minutes."

Another reader from a primary care trust copied us in a letter he’d sent to Cable and Wireless and the National Programme for IT (NPFIT):

"Can still not get Outlook to work with system, follow the instructions from the FAQ, no go. Try to download a PDF in the ‘help’ system, this crashes and Adobe says corrupt file. All Norwich GPs unable to use Outlook.

"No info from NHSmail at all, beforehand they sent out mail saying what was happening, nothing since… just a black hole.

“Am having to use the Web-based service, but pages are unreadable because they are coming over exceptionally wide, all on one or two lines. And again, no response from help line."

Some readers were positive about contact. One told EHI: "Monday morning, and I have my calendar and contacts back now. The system is better now and more responsive. The Calendar system is slower than I’d like, however I don’t really use the advanced features – more as a diary instead.

"I’m feeling more positive about it now as there are small things that are good, e.g. you get warned five minutes before the webpage times out and have the option to renew your session with a single click.

“The paranoid security of the old web interface meant very often you’d leave the webpage dormant for what seemed less than ten minutes to find you had been logged off."

When E-Health Insider put these concerns to NPfIT, a spokesperson replied: "As far as we are aware, POP3 and IMAP are working satisfactorily everywhere. There were one or two trusts where POP3 was not working but this was resolved at a local level. There are bound to be teething problems as people get used to a new system but there are no systemic issues.

“We acknowledge that the helpdesk has been taking more calls than  anticipated. In order to address this we are making two changes, which will be implemented this week. Firstly, there will be more staff to answer calls and secondly we are redesigning the call handling process internally."