NHS boss puts programme tender on table

  • 12 March 2009
NHS chief executive
David Nicholson

NHS chief executive David Nicholson told MPs on Wednesday that the Department of Health is going to tender for alternatives to the iSoft Lorenzo and Cerner Millennium care record systems.

Nicholson said that the tender was being carried out as insurance because the National Programme for IT in the NHS is now at a “critical phase”. He said both the iSoft and Cerner products needed to come good in the next few months.

Speaking at a Health Committee hearing into the Operating Framework for 2009-10, he remained cautiously optimistic about this happening. But he said: “It’s helpful to us, I think, to have reserves if one of them fails.”

E-Health Insider understands that NHS Connecting for Health will say that Nicholson was only referring to the South of England, where Fujitsu left as local service provider a year ago.

EHI also understands that a deal is close to being done to support the “live eight” sites that have already deployed Millennium, but other trusts will now be allowed to look at suppliers and products on the Additional Supply Capability and Capacity framework contract. Trusts outside the South will not be given the same freedom.

Nicholson’s comments were made in the context of questioning by Health Select Committee member, Lib Dem MP Sandra Gidley. She asked what would happen if one of the two systems for delivering the programme’s strategic care records systems failed.

The NHS boss said the option remained to give the rest of England to the remaining supplier – “there is that possibility” – but indicated this would not be the preferred route.

He said he was now confident that Cerner Millennium was a product that could be rolled out across London and that Lorenzo had great potential, but said while he was optimistic it was “not inevitable” it would be delivered.

“What we are also doing in parallel with this is going out again to tender to a variety of other organisations, to see whether there are now other organisations, who can also provide this service. It’s helpful to us I think to have reserves if one of them fails.”

He added: “But I think we’ll know in the next period whether Cerner and Lorenzo will deliver a fantastic product for us. We’re pretty confident it will.” He agreed that should such a switch be required necessary it might risk having to start over from scratch. “There is that issue.”

However, the NHS chief executive also said the world, and technology, had changed since the original contracts were tendered. “Some organisations who felt they didn’t want to be engaged with the programme now might in the future, so we are keeping our options open as far as that’s concerned,” he added.

Nicholson said a key problem that the NPfIT programme had faced throughout was the unique requirements of the NHS and what it is trying to achieve. “There is no system off the shelf we could go for.”

And he insisted that despite the lengthy delays, the two systems contracted for remained the best prospect. “We’ve been scouring the world and the two we think that are most likely to deliver are Cerner and Lorenzo.” Nicholson personally visited iSoft’s Chennai development centre with chief information officer for health Christine Connelly in November.

The NHS boss aknowledged again that both electronic record systems “are in a particularly delicate stage in their development”, although he said the problems with Millennium appeared to have been “fixed.”

“The Lorenzo product is being developed at Morecambe Bay, so we’re really optimistic that something will come out of that, but its not inevitable,” he went on. “And I think we’ll know over the next few months whether these products will actually be able to deliver the things they promised to do.”

The other issue he said that was being focused on is how to deliver products more quickly and to give trusts more flexibility. Answering questions on the Summary Care Record, the NHS boss said it was possible to de-couple the Summary Care Record from the wider CRS development and simplify it.

Later in the session, which went on to discuss the impact of the recession on the NHS, Nicholson said that change was inevitable: “You wouldn’t expect us to set up a programme four years ago and not change it.”

His boss, health secretary Alan Johnson, mounted an even firmer defence of the programme, rebutting what he described as some of the “drivel spoken”: “We’ve wasted billions of taxpayers money. Well no we haven’t. We’ve spent £3.2 billion on this. Part of the problem is that we haven’t spent enough money. Our problem has been the delay in getting this in place.”



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