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Health department blasted for 'track record of failed NHS digital projects'

DHSC criticised for failed attempts to meet a 2018 target for a paperless NHS

Members of the Public Accounts Committee have warned that the Department for Health & Social Care (DHSC) and the NHS lack essential components to turn around a “track record of expensive, failed IT programmes”.

In a report published on Friday, the committee called for the DHSC and the NHS to “move on” from its decades-long legacy of “failed attempts” at digital transformation.

The report was based on a National Audit Office inquiry into the digital transformation work across the NHS. It found that DHSC work failed to achieve the 2018 target of a paperless NHS, which was set in 2014, and paid particular attention to the Department’s “expensive and largely unsuccessful” 2002-2011 attempt to modernise and integrate NHS IT systems.

The chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier, MP, said that “the response to the pandemic demonstrates it is possible to reset and adopt new digital solutions and technologies”. However, she also emphasised the need for “a clear strategy that works with local trusts and acknowledges the financial pressures they are under”.

“After 18 years of failed attempts to digitally transform the NHS, you would hope that the one success that could be claimed was the learning and change to ensure those failures are not repeated,” said Hillier. “Incredibly, still, none of the components essential to the successful delivery of the digital ambition for the NHS are in place, and instead the Government presses on with expensive and unproven strategies and contracts that cost the taxpayer millions but don’t deliver.”

However, SAS UK data scientist Mark Frankish said that the NHS “is certainly heading in the right direction”, quoting SAS research which found that 47% of respondents had noted an improvement in the service since the first lockdown.

Nevertheless, Frankish added that “it is essential” that the modernisation of NHS IT systems “is done correctly”.

“Otherwise, we could see millions in taxpayers’ money used ineffectively. Connecting the plethora of disconnected IT systems which the NHS uses across the country must be the first port of call,” he said, adding that the healthcare system “must ensure that its disparate data and workloads are accessible, where possible, from an interconnected cloud platform”.

“This will join together various data sites and make patient data accessible from one location. Achieving this will not only make doctors’ lives easier, but it will enable the NHS to build on its innovative potential," he added. "We have seen huge improvement in this area recently, with AI now being used to better detect cancers for example. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg; there is much more to come."

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