Now is the time to open source NHS IT
Andrew Lansley today is pulling the punches on New Labour before the party goes to conference in Liverpool next week. As Paul noted, “Lansley has come to the shocking conclusion that PFI costs at 22 hospitals may be unaffordable.” Furthermore, Lansley has also announced the “dismantling” of the National Programme for IT – the £12bn NHS scheme erected in 2002 that included a national email system, electronic X-ray transfers and computised prescriptions.
But as with PFI, it’s not that Lansley is wrong for calling time on these items, but what he will do to “correct” them is key. For the IT programme he wants to move towards a “new system driven by local decision-making”. The new partnership with Intellect, an IT industry association, is set to promote smaller suppliers for government health projects.
Anything empowering the “local” is vogue at the moment, but as SA Mathieson has said today: “It does not spell the end of centralised IT work”. And nor should it. Moving towards an open source system, instead of locking into big contracts, could save money at an immense level, reduce the duplication by rolling out recycled assets across NHS systems (big contracts charge every time their programme is used, racking up bills), and remain in-keeping with the ethos to integrate health and social care by having a single portal for electronic care records.
The recent reports by the National Audit Office and Commons Public Accounts Committee respectively demonstrated that of the £12bn computer system, £2.7bn had already been spent on the transfer to electronic care records, and a further £4.3bn was in the pipeline. But utilising open source tools drastically reduces the cost of doing this. The evidence for this is there, but the culture in procurement has to change. As one person I spoke to told me: “No one got fired buying IBM”.
In spending money on this scheme, New Labour wanted something that sounded “sexy”. The programme – the largest civilian IT programme in the world – has done nothing but provide Lansley with extra ammo the week before Labour party conference. Today it has been given its final blow. But opening the doors for local authorities to make the same mistakes is the only solution Lansley has provided so far. The way government invests in its systems must change, and the future is open source.