More than 6000 GP surgeries are now connected to the NHS broadband, N3, NHS Connecting for Health has claimed; however, installation has not been without problems.
In a written statement, an NHS CfH spokesman said: "As at 31 March 2005, there were 6036 commissioned sites which were supporting live traffic on that date. In addition, a further 687 sites were in the process of commissioning but were not at that time supporting live traffic, awaiting their migration slot."
The news that BT Syntegra had met its March 31 milestone to get 6000 practices on-line came after months of problems reported by practice managers, GPs and IT consultants across England.
Common issues included multiple visits from engineers who completed one part of the installation, then left without completing the job or being able to say when it might be done.
A number of practices had been told that there is no capacity for the connection at the local exchange. Others had problems linking surgeries where practices operate out of different sites.
Carl Starbuck, IT manager for Lingwell Croft Surgery in Leeds, told a typical story of his attempts to get connected back in March.
He said: "We have been told that there are capacity issues at our local exchange but when I checked via my own ISP it had ‘green light’ status for all speeds, all services, at all contention ratios. Who’s kidding who?"
The surgery had received numerous visits from engineers. "We have had engineers who have been asked to do jobs that have already been done or arrived to find work at a different stage to what they had been informed," said Mr Starbuck.
The experience was ‘totally at odds’ with the retail experience where practice staff had been able to order BT broadband and have it installed at home within four days.
David Shaw, practice manager at Marden Medical Centre in Kent, described how it took six months between ordering N3 last September to finally getting it installed in February 2005.
‘We had a number of BT engineers turn up to fit ISDN lines that we already had. Then they sent someone to install broadband but he arrived without the kit. I found it absolutely incredulous.’
Ewan Davis, chairman of the primary healthcare group of the British Computer Society, said: ‘I am pleased to hear that they are making such good progress. This is a fundamental piece of infrastructure for pretty much everything the programme is trying to achieve.’
But he added: ‘However, from the reports I hear from GPs it is down to a flurry of activity rather than addressing some of the issues with the process that is leading so many GPs to complain.’
GPs were still reporting problems. ‘The record so far is a GP who had 16 visits from BT engineers and still had no N3 connection,’ he said.
BT Syntegra won the seven-year £530 million N3 (New National Network) contract to make 18,000 connections in February 2004. By June that year it had already run into trouble as it missed two key targets and had to pay the NHS damages. By December 2004 late delivery penalties had risen to £4.5 million.