NHS England’s director of patients and information expects 50,000 clinicians to learn to code over the next few years.

EHI editor Jon Hoeksma writes in the BMJ that Tim Kelsey’s Code4Health initiative, to be launched this autumn, will see tens of thousands of medical professionals, patients and NHS managers create apps and tools for the NHS.

“Over the next couple of years I expect something like 50,000 clinicians to have gone through Code4Health,” Kelsey told Hoeksma.

The initiative, which was launched by Kelsey in October last year, is a part of the official NHS information technology strategy, but the exact details of the programme have yet to be released.

Based on the US organisation ‘Code for America’, created to teach local government workers how to create apps and services using open source data, Kelsey hopes to inspire a social movement for innovation in the NHS.

Hoeksma’s article looks at the potential of teaching healthcare staff to write software for the NHS and responses reveal that clinicians have mixed views on the initiative.

Samuel P Leighton, a core medical trainee in Scotland, says the government has finally realised that the “best people to make NHS IT work properly” are the people who use it.

“While requiring a healthy dose of scepticism – clearly encouraging people to work to make apps etc for free is a boon for any employer – I feel this is a step in the right direction,” he writes.

“Plus, clinicians and service users are always going to be more motivated to embrace new ideas and technology if they are allowed to take part and have a say in driving that change.”

Andrew J Clarkin, a speciality registrar in Aberdeen, says that as a doctor who codes himself, he is pleased by the “admirable attempt” to engage clinicians in coding, but adds that there are several challenges to overcome.

“Involving the end-user in software development is far more likely to result in a product which integrates with and compliments the clinical workload it is designed for,” he says.

“It can be difficult to implement new ideas due to limitations of the infrastructure and IT policies of individual trusts.

“These difficulties are amplified when patient information is involved. The article uses smartphone apps as an obvious example – a great many doctors own these powerful, portable, convenient computers – yet many hospitals forbid the connection of personal devices to internal networks.”

Hoeksma points out that efforts to digitise the NHS have not been hugely successful so far, partly because doctors are reluctant to use software developed without their input. He asks if apps invented by amateur coders could save the NHS.

Another reader, Shyan Goh, an orthopaedic surgeon from Sydney, Australia, says assuming clinicians have the time or the will to help might be too optimistic.

“The Code4Health project by the NHS Commissioning Board appears to be founded by the belief that there are many clinicians who have the time and the ability to create IT tools to expedite the NHS march to digitising healthcare,” says Goh.

“I view the idea of getting as much as ‘50,000’ clinicians in training is misguided however; clinicians with amateur programming skills who are willing to create computer programs, tools or ‘apps’ will always do so without the help of government initiative though some (but certainly not ‘50,000’) would benefit from extra training and direct funding.”

Kelsey hopes teaching people to code will help unleash a powerful and disruptive wave of innovation.

Patients will also be encouraged to improve their technology skills though both code4health and a £2m ‘Health Online Programme’, which aims to train people to use online health services.

Tim Kelsey will be speaking at EHI Live 2013, a two day conference and exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham on 5-6 November. This year, the conference is free for all visitors, and registration is open now.