The Conservative party has commissioned the British Computer Society to review the £12.7 billion (US$25.4 billion) National Programme for IT, which they claim is "crashing down."
The review is the latest sign that the NHS IT programme, now four years late and projected to hit nearly six times the original budget of £2.3 billion, will be a political battleground in the next general election. Some projections have even predicted the program will go over £20 billion.
The review, for a report due to be published in March 2009, will examine all aspects of the programme to digitize patient records and provide electronic prescriptions, consulting a range of stakeholders, including doctors, other system users within the NHS, suppliers, project managers and academics. Anyone with an involvement in healthcare can participate.
Shadow health minister Stephen O'Brien, who has labelled the programme a "monolithic top down, centralised, one size fits all NHS supercomputer system," has relentlessly questioned MPs about the national programme in recent months. In June, health minister Ben Bradshaw, revealed that it would cost the NHS £4.5 billion more for local trusts to buy the IT and services now being provided by the national programme.
Dr Glyn Hayes, head of the review and former chair of the BCS Informatics Forum, was reluctant to be drawn into a political debate, and said the society remains politically neutral and the report will not pursue a particular outcome.
"We're not interested in comments on the current situation," he says. "This is looking to the future to inform policy."
Hayes said the review would assess future health IT policy, regardless of which party is in power. The group wants to set a vision for how IT can benefit healthcare, as well as establishing a strategy for achieving that.
"We've not predetermined what the review will say," he "And, although the Tories have started it, they are not bound by it."
Nevertheless, in a request for evidence, two of the five project remits details are to "advise on action for the current government to take" and to "advise on policy options to be considered for implementation by an incoming Conservative government."
The BCS has sent a series of questions to a range of stakeholders in healthcare IT, with a deadline of 30 September for written answers, before a live debate takes place. Topics in the questions include change management, data sharing and confidentiality, but participants can comment on any theme.
"It's a great opportunity for people in the health service to contribute their views," said Hayes.
"The group is convinced of the benefits that can be gained though the use of health informatics, and welcomes the progress that is being made in this area," it said in its letter to invite participants.
"We believe that [patient] records, appropriately designed, properly implemented, and made available to those providing health and, where feasible, social care would enable the improvement and efficient management of patient and service user outcomes."
Also in the review group are Gail Beer, an independent consultant; Iain Carpenter, clinical lead on record standards, and John Williams, director Health Informatics, both at the Royal College of Physicians; and Ian Shepherd at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
The BCS separately runs an IT qualification for NHS staff.