Wales is establishing itself as a world leader in the use of digital technologies in health and social care, its health minister told a Welsh Assembly debate on the country’s NHS IT programme.

Edwina Hart told Assembly members that the Welsh Assembly government had made significant investment in IT.

She also argued that future delivery of health and care will depend on the use of digital technologies and new information services to meet the challenges of growing demand.

Hart said programmes delivered so far included the Individual Health Record system – Wales’ version of an emergency summary record – which has cost £4.7m.

The IHR is due to extend across Wales by the end of 2011. The Welsh Assembley government has also invested £2.5m in the first phase of the Welsh Clinical Portal.

Projects due to become available later this year include My Health Online – which will allow patients to access a bi-lingual website to book appointments with a GP or request repeat prescriptions – and a single Laboratory Information Management System.

The LIMS has cost £12.1 and should mean that test results are readily available to clinicians across the country.

Hart said: “The investment we have made during the lifetime of this government in healthcare ICT is helping to maintain high quality care for patients and reducing harm, waste and variation.

"We are maintaining our investment in the health service in cash terms over the next three years – despite the impact of the UK government’s cuts to the Welsh budget.”

Hart said her administration had also invested in developing world class medical technologies including robotic pharmacies, MRI and CT scanners, while it had put £16.5m into a new Positron Emission Tomography Imaging Centre at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff.

Dr Gwyn Thomas, the Welsh Assembly Government’s chief information officer for health and social care services, said its ‘made in Wales’ approach to delivering digital healthcare had been achieved by taking pragmatic, incremental steps to link existing and new systems together to develop an all-Wales ICT infrastructure.

He added: “We have not taken a ‘rip and replace’ approach but have combined the best internal NHS systems with the best commercial systems. Our main aim is to make sure that ICT supports staff and patients in the delivery of healthcare services.”

Dr David Bailey, chairman of the BMA’s GP committee in Wales, said: “In general the IT strategy in Wales – particularly the Individual Health Record, Welsh Clinical Portal and Laboratory Information Management System when it comes on stream – has been welcomed by GPs.

"It has has put Wales in the vanguard of IT developments whilst maintaining a proper regard for patient confidentiality.

“My Health Online also has the potential to improve services, particularly through repeat prescriptions, although online appointments are likely to remain only a small part of overall GP appointment services in order not to disadvantage patients who cannot readily use online services.”

The Assembly passed a motion acknowledging the “significant progress” made on the NHS Wales ICT programme and supporting investment in ICT systems as a priority for the future.

The NHS Wales Informatics Service is also setting a framework contract for a Picture Archiving and Communication System Managed Service Solution.

The service has published a notice in the Official Journal of the European Union for the framework contract, which will run for seven years. The Informatics Service says it expects to award the framework agreement in early 2012.

It also says the solution will be initially implemented in Betsi Calwaladr Health Board and then be implemented in other NHS organisations using ‘call-off’ contracts from the framework agreement.