2011: A year of unravellings and opportunities

The past year has been marked by the unraveling of grand plans. It’s also seen a real buzz emerge in the UK’s healthcare IT sector. And as far as patients are concerned, 2011 might be remembered as the tipping point, when politicians put their weight behind viable projects to use technology and data in the transformation of care.

Perhaps the most dramatic change has been the collapse of much of the National Programme for IT (NPfIT). I remember its birth, when it looked fresh and full of promise. Over the years it has been painful to watch the project being undermined by so many disasters. The final disintegration reminded me of one of those slow motion movies of a tower block being demolished. An edifice that had looked so huge simply crumpled back in on itself, leaving a heap of rubble and, in this case, recriminations. Indeed, the rush to blame the vendors involved, has been a worry. We simply cannot afford a situation to emerge where healthcare IT suppliers are viewed with suspicion.

A similar sense of instability afflicts Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Bill. We were presented with a vision of a simpler, more effective NHS in which the business-like and patient-focused GPs commissioned services on behalf of patients. An indication of how badly awry this has gone is that a whole army of GPs has signed an e-petition to scrap the Bill. In fact, the shrieks of anger and dissent have come from just about every part of the NHS and far beyond. The government’s response has been to make amendments on the hoof. As a result the original vision may be lost, and we risk getting another unwieldy commissioning system which the next government will overturn.

NPfIT and the Health Bill underline the dangers of imposing big visions on the NHS. And what has been so promising about 2011 is that all the smaller innovative IT firms that had been marginalised by NPfIT have begun to re-emerge. There is so much creativity and ability out there, and a pragmatic approach in which providers choose suppliers to suit their needs, will help it flourish. This is excellent for the economy as we have so many companies which, after proving themselves in the UK, have the potential to make a big impact on the world market.

Likewise, it’s been great to see the government announce its plan to make anonymised patient data readily available to the life sciences and pharmaceutical industries. Once again, it’s an area where the public and private sectors can collaborate to bring benefits for all.

Perhaps the highlight of the year was the PM’s announcement that three million patients will benefit from telehealth and telecare services. This would be a huge vindication of modern technology and its ability to bring a closer and more effective relationship between patients and care teams. The worry is that it might go the way of other grand plans. But the new willingness of the Department of Health to co-operate with industry, and representative bodies like Intellect, will hopefully mean it is pushed forward in a pragmatic and sensible fashion. If this happens then 2012 could be a time when the UK healthcare IT sector gains confidence and technology starts to be recognised as central to the delivery of top quality care.

Merry Christmas!

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