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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 August, 2004, 09:29 GMT 10:29 UK
Q&A: NHS computer system
Doctors should be able to access a patient's records, wherever they are
A government spending watchdog is to investigate a multi-billion pound programme to install a computer system across the NHS amid concerns costs on the project will soar.

BBC News Online looks at why the issue is being examined.

Q: What does the government want to do?

It hopes to connect every family doctor and hospital in England, and provide online records for 50m patients by 2010.

It should allow doctors to access information about a patient, via their record, whether they are at their local GP surgery or at a hospital at the other end of the country.

Patients should also be able to book appointments and operations over an electronic booking system.

The government is also aiming to set up a system for the electronic transfer of prescriptions, and look at ways of storing and distributing digital images, such as X-rays, to help diagnosis and treatment.

Q: How much will it cost?

The declared cost was 6.2 billion.

However, the Department of Health says the final cost of modernising NHS computer systems could rise to between 18.6bn and 31bn - three to five times the declared figure.

Critics are concerned that health trusts will have to foot the bill, but Health Minister John Hutton said the NHS would not have to carry an unsustainable financial burden.

Q: What progress has been made so far?

The government spent the last year deciding which companies to offer contracts to. England has been divided into around five areas. Companies, such as Accenture and Fujitsu have been awarded the contracts .

The contracts say that systems in each area have to be able to "talk" to each other, so that the system does operate nationally.

Q: Is everyone behind the idea?

There are concerns. The British Medical Association says the procurement process was relatively secretive, and many people in the NHS do not know the detail of what is happening, even though it will transform their working lives and have a huge impact on patient care.

It also wants to ensure that access to patient data is controlled, so only people who need to see patient data for clinical, research or healthcare planning reasons can do so.

Q: What will the National Audit Office be looking at?

It will examine the way the system which will be installed was chosen and whether it offers value for money.

The NAO will also look at the way the system is designed, if there is enough money for training, how much it will cost to implement the system locally and if doctors support it.

It hopes to publish its report by summer 2005.

Q: Is anything happening already?

Yes. BT has also been awarded two contracts worth 1.6bn to upgrade the NHS's computer systems so they can cope with the additional demand.

In addition, parts of the NHS are trying out various IT initiatives, not all of which are part of the national programme.

For example, 150 GP practices are testing a computerised appointment booking system, where patients can book to see a doctor over the internet.

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