By Matthew Shelley

Our political leaders are fond of telling each other to ‘get a grip’ when they fail to deliver on a promise. Well, perhaps it’s time that the healthcare IT sector told the DH to do precisely this on the repeatedly delayed NHS information strategy.

HSJ reports that the document – vital if we are to have coherence and purpose after the effective collapse of the National Programme – will not be out in April as promised. It is already a year overdue. Had it been on time then UK IT companies and healthcare providers would be much better placed to forge ahead with new, innovative and creative partnerships.

Most worryingly still it seems that the DH is having to do an 11th hour redraft of the latest version. The proposed recommendations (circulated to selected stakeholders some weeks ago) were described as ‘basically a lot of motherhood and apple pie’. This follows last year’s binning, by DH chief information officer Christine Connelly, of Version One of the strategy. This first effort was described as ‘confused’. Ms Connelly then had a go at doing it herself. The timetable slipped. She has since resigned.

Yet more concerning is that last week’s leaking of the draft risk register, assessing the potential dangers from Andrew Lansley’s health reforms, identified informatics as one of the major areas of vulnerability.

Let’s just remind ourselves about what’s at stake. The Future Forum, set up by the government to provide advice, has said in no uncertain terms that the NHS needs a culture change to drag itself out of the ‘information dark ages’. This really matters. IT systems aren’t just nice things to have to save on a bit of paperwork. They are the bedrock of healthcare. They make the difference as to whether or not patients get the right treatments when it’s needed and how clinicians and patients engage.

Healthcare IT is about patients, services, NHS efficiency and about whether vast sums of taxpayers’ money are invested wisely. On a broader front, it’s also a matter of jobs and industry. The economy is in poor shape; healthcare IT is a potentially vibrant and high-value sector and should be encouraged not daunted.

This government quite rightly campaigned hard on the last administration’s failures and waste with aspects of NPfIT. That is all the more reason why it has to show that it can do a better job. There was genuine enthusiasm when we were promised an Information Revolution – but unless they get their act together their entire project faces dissolving into a ‘Data Damp Squib’.

With luck this latest delay will allow the document’s authors to come up with something that will sparkle and inspire. The next due date for publication is May. I truly hope that the final result, so long in gestation, will prove worth the wait.

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