Crispy critters: Public Accounts Committee roast the NHS IT project

I was watching the Public Accounts Committee on 23 May 2011 take evidence from IT suppliers and NHS executives on the NHS IT contracts. This monstrous contract was doomed from the start, yet few seemed to be in a position of influence to alter the ‘group think’ that prevailed in government. Civil servants and ministers seemed to breath each other’s air as they pursued this pig in a poke. Worringly, the PAC exchanges shed a bit of light but more revealing was the lack of common language amongst those concerned. Frequently, answers were not relevant to the question, used jargon or introduced further obfuscation.

In the end, whether supplier or NHS exec, the PAC was faced with a sea of denial, avoidance, or sheer hubris. I say hubris as NHS executives in particular were at pains to avoid rocking their own boat by being completely candid about things, preferring warm phrases that all was well, despite the CEO of the NHS being unable to answer many questions clearly, and seemed painfully ill-informed of his brief.

Evidence of obfuscation abounded as the MPs had to ask suppliers many times to answer with yes/no to what were straightforward questions. I was impressed with the efforts of some MPs (Bacon in particular) to get clear answers to important questions.  As a rule, complex answers betray a lack of understanding of the underlying logic — there are simple answers to these questions, not ‘it depends’ or ‘you’re comparing apples and oranges, pears’; indeed, at one point, the sessions seemed more about the comparative merits of different fruits than IT procurement. As well, the lack of clarity of underlying logic also evidences people were unable to agree on what the core problems were.  Now, granted for some this is likely to be a complex problem (in the technical sense of the word, a wicked problem), but I doubt that — the NHS’s needs and responsibilities are complex, but an electronic health record is a thing, with a defined functionality.

I remember sitting in a room just as this NHS IT for heatlhwas being firmed up (2002), and hearing the Director (Granger) at the time speak glowingly of the benefits. Upon hearing this, others in the international teleconference asked, “surely you’re not serious about doing this”, to be told, “absolutely”. As is said, act in haste, repent at leisure.

An important question was, knowing what we know today, was the original decision to proceed with this central and top-down approach sensible? The answers were evasive and broadly technically wrong. In 2002, it was perfectly possible to develop distributed systems, with broadly distributed functionality using various systems integration options to enable diverse technical architectures to co-exist to deliver uniform service. No one wanted to think that way for a couple of reasons. The first is ego: grand plans appeal to people’s ego needs, to be in charge of something big. The Director at the time exhibited serious Machiavellian behaviours, and failed miserably to engage users.  The second is conceptual: at the time, Department of Health and NHS executives were still thinking the NHS was a single lumpen thing that needed single solutions to its complex problems. In the early 2000s and late 1990s, that the NHS should be seen as a complex adaptive system was understood, but not acknowledged as it flew in the face of prevailing ideology about central control, driven by the mistaken (technical) belief that a distributed system, while diverse and pluralistic, would be unable to deliver a common standard of performance.

In the end, you end up with a system that is rigid, technically obsolete as soon as it starts operating and because it fails to evolve with changing clinical needs, which will change as clinicians become familiar with the technology and comfortable with its use, and start to specify more sophisticated applications. That some PAC evidence said that clinician need had evolved is nonsense — we know then that these were the core needs. Anyway, we’re moving on to smartphone apps, and there is little evidence that the system can accommodate the wireless world of healthcare. The best selling clinical app is ePocrates, for drug information. How many clinicians have that app? How many clinicians are using smartphones? Distributed and simple systems can deliver often quite complex solutions; for instance, the Danish electronic prescribing system was built on simple secure emails.

The approach that was ignored at the time was this:

  1. specify common standards of interconnectivity and functionality, that is results;
  2. allow providers to use whatever system they wished as long as it met these requirements;
  3. allow the system to evolve over time as needs become better understood;
  4. start with the patients who are heavy users (high risk/high utilisation) and roll out from there.

That’s it.

Where the English NHS and Department also lost the plot was failing to exploit the NHS IT project to drive innovation into the IT sector to encourage the formation of a potentially world-class health IT industry in the UK. Is it any coincidence that the main solutions are from outside the UK and the critical supplier expertise betrayed North American origins?

This is a real shame, as once again the Department has shown antipathy toward enabling a commercially successful and innovative health supplier industry, in favour of mean-spirited control. This was perhaps the greatest missed opportunity, as instead, the Department came up with false logic of needing suppliers of scale (who are now quasi-monopolists).  Indeed, one member of the PAC did question whether CSC’s corporate logic was to make itself a monopoly supplier to the NHS.

The tragedy, too, is that virtually all the functionality that the NHS needs can be downloaded for free in the form of open source software.

Finally, the best thing the NHS and the Department could do is make sure all that intellectual property that has accumulated is given away, to try again to jump-start a health IT industry. If there is a value-for-money lesson the PAC could draw it is to determine whether there is sufficient residual value in the NHS IT procurement to be translated into investment in the economy, to build new suppliers to the NHS and perhaps the world. An opportunity awaits.

UPDATE

I thought I’d add reference to this diagram on distributed clinical systems. The copyright dates from 2002, a time when the PAC was told such capability didn’t exist. The diagram is taken from the OpenEHR website, which adds “Much of the current openEHR thinking on distributed computing environments in health is based on the excellent previous works of the (then) OMG Corbamed taskforce, and the Distributed Healthcare Environment (DHE) work done in Europe in EU-funded projects such as RICHE and EDITH, and the HANSA and PICNIC implementation projects.”  In those days, the UK’s NHS was still charting a proprietary, and non-standard, approach to EHRs and clinical systems; an example of one failed programme is the ‘common basic specification’ — there is an interesting commentary here on some reasons why it failed.

 

Diagram of a distributed clinical system, ca 2002

 

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