Almost 15,500 connections have been made to the national network, N3, and work is on schedule to be completed in March next year, according to NHS Connecting for Health (CfH).

The agency says 97% of GP surgeries have now been connected to the network by N3 contractors BT, potentially benefiting around 48 million patients with faster connections for sharing health information securely.

Patrick O’Connell, BT Health managing director, commented: "This is a tremendous achievement for BT and the network providers we have contracted with. We have gained momentum and we are on schedule to hit the end goal of 18,000 connections in England by March 2007."

CfH said: “The number of connections has increased rapidly since the Weston Coyney Medical Centre in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, became the 15,000th NHS site in England to be connected to N3 recently.

“For example, patients can receive the convenience of local specialist advice and treatment instead of the inconvenience of travelling a distance to specialist centres. The highest quality images and video examinations can be sent to specialists who conduct the diagnosis remotely.”

CfH says N3 is more secure and efficient than its predecessor, NHSnet, and also less expensive to run. It claims savings for the NHS on networking costs of an estimated £900m over seven years, relative to previous and remaining NHSnet contracts.

BT was awarded the £530m contract for N3 in February 2004 along with the local service provider contract for London and the contract to build the central database known as the "Spine".

Chief executive of BT’s global services division, Andy Green says the company is making strong progress with all three contracts and expects to make a profit on the contracts over their lifespan.

Figures released in response to a parliamentary question earlier this year showed that BT earned just £1.3m on the London contract where delivery, to acute trusts particularly, has been slow. Green said, however, that BT had received “hundreds of millions of pounds” in contractual payments overall.

He said: "N3 is an area where we have made some of the strongest progress. We have quietly created Europe’s largest virtual private network that will connect every NHS site in England, enabling information to travel at great speeds between those sites. We are also rolling out a similar network in Scotland.

"The increasing sophistication of NHS services and procedures means that this high-capacity has never been more essential. Today, it is already benefiting clinicians and patients alike by enabling clinical information to be shared quickly and securely.