MP Calls For A Halt To ‘Dangerous’ NHS Booking System

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Despite the cancellation of the NHS Programme for IT, patients’ lives ar at risk from its booking systems, an MP has said

Despite being abandoned, some of the elements of the grand design for the National Health Service (NHS) seem to have survived – and are still causing serious problems.

So much so that Conservative MP Richard Bacon , a member of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, has called for deployments of the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) Cerner Millennium patient booking system to be halted after problems in Bristol and Oxford NHS Trusts.

A trail of disruption

The £12.7 billion NHS Programme for IT (NPfIT) was supposed to impose a national structure on NHS IT, but in September it was judged to be a failure and officially abandoned. However, since then, there have been disputes over the cost of winding it down – although it currently appears that American services giant CSC will be writing off the cost.

Despite the apparent end of the long-running NPfIT saga, it seems that elements of the programme, and in particular the Cerner software, are causing problems with two Bristol hospitals branding the software “potentially dangerous”.

According to consultants’ emails shown to the BBC, lists of operations have printed out incorrectly, scheduling patients for inappropriate operations and surgeons for work that was beyond their specialisations.

The North Bristol NHS Trust admitted, “In theatres we have had some issues but have absolutely ensured from the outset that clinical safety has been at the top, and have ensured any risks and issues have been mitigated.”

Although North Bristol classed the incidents as “teething problems”, a spokesperson admitted that there had been “more problems than anticipated”. The series of errors was put down to data migration glitches that had mixed up information about outpatients and their associated clinics.

In an email to staff, the Trust explained that the system change had been a big project and “was not surprised there had been difficulties” – however BBC health correspondent Matthew Hill described the theatre lists as “complete fiction” and “potentially dangerous”. The Trust’s email also advised staff to be vigilant and to check that lists were “completely accurate”.

The North Bristol spokesperson said, “We need to ensure that we rebuild and recreate the clinics to match what people expect them to be on the ground.”

A costly mistake

The Cerner Millennium software problem appears to be more than a local failing. Users of the Cerner systems rolled out for Royal Berkshire and Imperial College London have not reported problems. However, the Royal Free Hampstead, Barts and the London and Milton Keynes Hospital have all had problems.

Recently, the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust also reported problems with the booking system. Patients ringing in to book appointments sometimes had to wait for up to an hour to have their calls answered. Even when a call was successful. The actual appointments were so delayed that the Trust had to abandon car parking charges over a three-day period.

The Oxford hospitals do not expect the problems to be resolved for three months.

Bacon said the system was bringing hospitals “to their knees” and said that “deployments need to be stopped until we are sure that they can be managed safely”.

The cost of deploying the booking system at the North Bristol sites is about £29 million over seven years. This is compares with a reported £8.2 million paid for a similar system at University Hospitals Bristol Foundation Trust, bought outside the NPfIT project.