What?  The Government recently announced its plan to accelerate the dismantling of the NHS £11 bn National Programme for IT (NPfIT), a project which began in 2002 to modernise NHS IT systems and which was labelled as the largest civilian technology undertaking in the world.

So what? The NPfIT, conceived under the last government has been making its way up the political agenda in recent years, with increasing calls for it to be scrapped due to a failure to consult at a local level, delays, reported overspend and a lack of tangible results.  The decision follows the completion of a review by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority in May 2011 which concluded that the NPfIT “has not and cannot deliver to its original intent” and “a central authority is no longer appropriate to make decisions on behalf of local organisations”.

However, in spite of the Department of Health (DH) announcement and the headlines that accompanied it, there have been a number of significant improvements which have, unsurprisingly, been left out of the headlines. They include a new national network infrastructure (N3), electronic patient booking (Choose and Book), an email system for 600,000 people (NHSmail) and the picture archiving and communications service for reviewing and storing x-ray information online (PACS). A large proportion of the £6.4 billion pounds spent so far has been used to fund these improvements.

It also does not mean that the dismantling will be done instantly: existing contracts with existing suppliers will not be  terminated but will be left to run their course until 2013 and 2014. The national applications and infrastructure that have been delivered so far need to be maintained.

The dismantling will in fact be a much slower process, where the DH seeks to salvage the bits of NPfIT that work from those that did not and ensure that interoperability from the remnants of the project is provided with the new systems procured at a local level.

Intellect (which describes itself as “the leading trade association for the technology sector which comprises the Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), Electronics Manufacturing and Design, and Consumer Electronics (CE) sectors…”) is now working with the NHS to work out how to open up and invigorate a marketplace for healthcare projects that is inclusive of SMEs.  The NHS itself recognises that, although the project has provided a foundation to build on, a move to information systems that provide greater value for money and are more patient and clinician driven is now required. This can already be seen by the increasing number of NHS Trusts that are now tendering for IT systems in their own right.  This creates considerable opportunities as well as challenges for both customers and suppliers, given the nature and scope of these projects.

Accordingly, continued transformation of NHS IT systems is very much still on the agenda. More details of the future plans for IT in the NHS, including its plans for spending the remaining £4bn of the original £11bn NPfIT budget, will be published by the DH later this year.