In his recently published memoirs, Tony Blair recalls how he once met Bill Gates, to the acute embarrassment of a young David Miliband.


“I got all my terminology muddled up and, to the horror of David and the ‘beautiful people’ in the office asked Bill how his mainframe was or something like that, a question that produced… a curious gulping sound from Bill.”

Well, it would. Yet the meeting probably helped to get a commitment to get a grip on healthcare computing into New Labour’s 1997 manifesto. And a later seminar at Downing Street certainly helped to create the National Programme for IT in the NHS.

In 1998, the government published the ‘Information for Health’ strategy that created the NHS Information Authority. It was supposed to develop a national infrastructure for the health service, run demonstrator projects, and develop standards against which trusts could procure their own IT systems.

By 2002, it was obvious that most of IfH’s targets were going to be missed. Technical issues, lack of money and the difficult procurement process caused by a fragmented NHS IT market were identified as key causes of failure.

When Gates came back to London for the launch of Windows XP, that Downing Street seminar mulled over a different idea: a programme to replace local procurement with national contracts and “ruthless standardisation.”

In the autumn of 2002, the first director general of NHS IT, Richard Granger was appointed. By 2004, the programme’s multi-million pound national and local service provider contracts were in place. And a decade of public controversy about electronic health records was well underway.

Or, to put it another way, the man who says in his memoirs that he had “heard the term mainframe somewhere or another” was instrumental in the decision to spend £12.7 billion on healthcare computing – with decidedly mixed results.

Successes, we’ve had a few

Plenty of commentators will argue that “the NHS supercomputer” has been an unmitigated disaster; but it has had positives to report.

BT rolled out the N3 broadband network on time and to budget, and it has since been upgraded to carry voice calls (although there have been persistent complaints about its capacity and speed).

Picture archiving and communications systems, which were added to the programme after its launch, were successfully installed in English hospitals (although there have been persistent complaints about the cost of the PACS programme and its lack of integration with other systems).

The Choose and Book electronic booking system is in place (although usage has stalled at around 50%) and the Electronic Prescription Service Release 2 is finally rolling out (albeit many years late).

This morning’s ministerial statement says that the national infrastructure and applications that NPfIT has delivered will be retained, but “they no longer need to be managed as projects” and can instead become “IT services under the control of the NHS.”

Somewhat surprisingly, given its flirtation with commercial personal health records in the run up to the election, the coalition government also seems committed to the Summary Care Record – although a separate review of both its content and consent model are underway that should report “by the end of September”.

Where the programme has really struggled has been with the other part of the National Care Records Service; getting detailed records into acute trusts and other healthcare providers.

But then again…

This part of the programme proved beyond two local service providers; Accenture, which exited the East and North East in 2006, and Fujitsu, which left the South in 2008.

In May last year, Christine Connelly, who became NHS chief information officer six months after Granger’s departure in January 2008, set deadlines for the two remaining LSPs to show they were making “significant progress.”

BT was told to get Cerner Millennium moving again in London, after a long halt caused by two disastrous go-lives at Bart’s and the London and the Royal Free NHS trusts.

CSC was told to get iSoft Lorenzo into a trust by November and an acute trust by March. BT met its target. CSC hit one target with a go-live at NHS Bury, but missed the second. University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust went live with Lorenzo Regional Care Release 1.9 only in June.

By then, a general election had taken place. In the run up to it, the Conservatives endorsed the findings of an independent review of health and social care IT that called for the national programme to be radically rewritten and the LSP contracts to be “halted and re-negotiated.”

In the white paper, ‘Liberating the NHS’, health secretary Andrew Lansley said that NHS organisations would be able to choose from “a more plural system of IT and other suppliers.” This morning’s announcement follows this direction of travel.

It says that in future, “a more locally led system of procurement should operate”, alongside a “more modular approach” to IT development that will allow NHS organisations to “introduce smaller, more manageable change” and build on the best of the systems they already have.

Some issues to mention

The government seems to have given many critics what they wanted; a new regime in which trusts will be able to choose systems that meet them from a range of suppliers, as long as these interoperate and allow information to be exchanged across healthcare communities.

There is no danger of the new regime failing because trusts divert ‘ring-fenced’ IT money to other priorities, as they did in the days of IfH. But only because there will be no ‘ring-fenced’ money.

Trusts will have to find their own funds for IT investment; against another reorganisation of the health service and a demand to find £20 billion of efficiency savings over four years.

Some may decide that IT is not a priority for investment; even though there is a compelling argument to be made that a cheaper, higher quality and more consuming health service cannot be delivered without it.

Nor is money the only challenge for trusts that accept the argument – or that just need to replace ageing legacy systems. As the programme has palpably stalled over the past couple of years, a handful of trusts have gone outside it for one reason or another.

Some (such as Newcastle and Royal Berkshire) have tried procuring national programme systems by other means. Others (such as The Rotherham) have turned to alternative suppliers for full-on EPR systems. Still others (such as Blackpool) have tried adding ‘high end’ functionality to existing PASs.

None of these approaches has been without its problems. So, while it’s hard to imagine that many tears will be shed over the demise of the national programme, it’s effective death does not mean that all will be easy from now on.

Challenges remain with getting the successors to “mainframes” into the NHS. It’s just that in future the challenges will be different.


NPfIT timeline

NHS Executive commits to detailed electronic health records
NPfIT starts
Richard Granger appointed NHS IT director
BT awarded contract for the national data Spine
Local service provider 10 year contracts awarded (CSC for North West and West Midland cluster; BT Capital Care Alliance for London cluster; Fujitsu for Southern cluster; Accenture for North East and Eastern England clusters)
BT awarded N3 (NHS broadband network) contract
NHS Connecting for Health (NHS CFH) set up to deliver NPfIT
Contract reset 1 (BT) for ‘interim solutions’ in London
Accenture withdraws as local service provider; CSC awarded 9 year contract for Accenture’s former clusters
NPfIT Local Ownership Programme (devolves responsibility for local delivery of the programme from NHS CFH to groupings of strategic health authorities; replaces original five clusters with three programme areas: Southern (local service provider Fujitsu), London (local service provider BT) and North, Midlands and East (local service provider CSC) Contract reset 2 (BT) for “best of breed” London solutions
Fujitsu contract for local service provider in Southern area terminated, legal dispute continues
Contract reset negotiations 3 (BT) for new delivery model in London
Richard Granger, head of NHS CFH, leaves in January; Gordon Hextall, acting head, leaves in April; Christine Connelly and Martin Bellamy appointed to jointly lead NHS CFH in September
BT awarded additional contract to take over eight trusts formerly with Fujitsu (seven after merger of two trusts), plus 25 trusts for RiO and four additional acute trusts in Southern area Other Southern trusts given choice of local service provider solution from BT or CSC or from various suppliers in Additional Supply Capability and Capacity List (ASCC)
Martin Bellamy, director of programmes and systems delivery, NHS CFH, resigns
NHS CFH, headed by Christine Connelly, is integrated with Department of Health Informatics Directorate
November deadline for new deployment of Cerner Millennium across an additional acute trust in London area (met)
Parliamentary announcement of contract renegotiations with BT and CSC—seeking NPfIT cost savings
March deadline for deployment of Lorenzo across an acute trust in North, Midlands and East area (not met)
New memorandum of agreement signed between BT and NHS CFH, including reduced number of deployments in acute trusts in London; contract discussions with CSC continuing
May: UK general election—new coalition government


This timeline comes from a review of the National Care Records Service led by researchers from the University of Edinburgh that was recently published in the British Medical Journal.