Home > General Politics > Now is the time to open source NHS IT

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.

Categories: General Politics Tags: , ,
  1. Mil
    September 22, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Yup. I’d have to agree there. Getting enough people interested in resolving a problem and providing them with the means to constructively channel their efforts has been the issue to hand since time immemorial. Open source ways of seeing and doing are the only thing the NHS hasn’t tried. Time to give its many adepts, procedures and processes a real try.

    • September 22, 2011 at 5:01 pm

      It’s a culture shift, but it’s one needed even by so-called proponents of open source. Here Francis Maude gives the impression he will purchase open source rather than proprietary software in 2010, then here he is snubbing open sourcerers (!) last month. They play it so frustratingly safe, at a cost to us all – and on another note, Labour only laid the groundwork for spending waste in NHS IT.

  2. Mike
    September 23, 2011 at 10:53 am

    So this is the Big Society approach to IT systems? Take the work from professionals under contract and offer it to amateurs to play with in their spare time? Presumably redundant engineers keeping their hand in after spending the day driving taxis for a living. It’s not as though we didn’t have Unix running on PCs decades ago.

    I would have thought introducing competent procurement and specification would be a better approach (though somewhat radical, at least in the UK).

    • September 23, 2011 at 12:19 pm

      If you’d left this comment at competent procurement then we’d have full agreement – particularly as we’d both agree on how radical this would be in England and Wales. But locking ourselves into big contracts with big companies charging on a per usage basis is not sensible, and therefore it follows that cheaper, and reusable, open source tools, achieving what the NHS needs which is electronic records systems for health and social care (NHS Spine), an email system, an internet gateway, an archiving system, and an online appointments system – working with these big proprietors just isn’t good procurement now, and everyone realises. Oddly, for the public sector, there’s too much long termism at play here. But further, you seem to imply a lack of professional standards in open source contracts – something on which I’m sure you couldn’t substantiate upon. It certainly doesn’t tally with the people in open source circles I’ve been in contact with.

  3. October 5, 2011 at 12:32 am

    First class article

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