Scotland’s £27m NHS 24 patient call management system has been delayed due to testing issues, the latest in a series of public healthcare IT hiccups.
The Capgemini system, which should have been ready to use by over 700 frontline staff by last autumn, was part of the rollout of the NHS 111 number to allow Scottish patients health advice 24-hours a day, replacing the 08454 number. The system was supposed to cover patient management across the phone and computer, and is intended to encourage greater caller handling by lay staff instead of nurses and healthcare staff.
However, it is understood that the IT system to complement the new telehealth services due to be rolled out this month will not be going ahead due to issues raised in testing. NHS 24, which handles 1.5 million Scottish NHS patients calls a year, has refused to comment on the nature of these issues.
NHS 24’s chief executive John Turner said: "The new system is being built by BT and Capgemini, and our intention is to continue to develop the system with our suppliers and to deploy it when it is safe to do so. In the meantime, the current systems continue to work effectively in supporting the delivery of our services across Scotland, and people should not hesitate to contact the NHS 24 service if they need to.
"In recent years, NHS 24 has been developing a programme to update our technology systems for the future. This will enable us to continue to provide safe and effective services to patients, to enhance the way NHS 24 works by delivering a more streamlined service for patients and staff, and to expand services in the years ahead.”
NHS 24 awarded the first part of the contract, worth £27m over 10 years, to Capgemini in 2011 as part of the telehealth service’s new IT infrastructure programme following a patient consultation.
Capgemini’s contract covers patient contact, patient relationship management, clinical decision support tools to assist with triage and knowledge management. These applications will be designed to work with external systems such as the national patient database and local service information.
BT handles the second part of the contract and provides infrastructure and managed services for a reported £70m. It is understood that BT will not be affected by the delays and that its contract is still intact.
Meanwhile, concerns have been raised that staff shortages and greater use of lay call handlers will have a negative impact on patient safety, the Scottish Herald reported.
An ‘experienced’ NHS 24 worker wrote anonymously to an MSP stating that “the result of having faith in the new system was that they now have more call handlers who are not clinically trained and fewer nurses”.
The UK’s version of NHS 111 has similarly been dogged by bad publicity over a series of hiccups and criticism over lay call handlers taking patient calls. The service was delayed in 24 regions in April last year after GP leaders raised concerns over patient safety.
Norman Provan, associate director of the Royal College Of Nursing in Scotland, told the Scottish Herald: "We are aware of the problems NHS 24 has been experiencing in implementing the new call management system and futures programme.
"Clearly, this is something NHS 24 needs to resolve as a matter of urgency. We would urge it to ensure the solution has minimal impact on staff and staffing levels and are happy to work with NHS 24 to achieve this."
Labour health spokesman Neil Findlay has lodged a series of questions in the Scottish Parliament about circumstances at NHS 24 and has called on Holyrood's Health Committee to investigate.
He said: "We know there are concerns about staffing levels from whistle¬blowers within NHS 24. Now we find out a key IT project that was meant to deliver savings and improve patient care has hit the buffers.
"What we do not know is what additional costs are being incurred by the taxpayers. We do not know how long the delays are and what the consequences for the service are of such delays.
"It is only right that what is happening within NHS 24 is opened up for scrutiny and MSPs have the chance to examine what has gone on.”
NHS 24 has insisted that the new phone line NHS 111 will still be rolled out this month despite the IT delays.
The Scottish Government has lent NHS 24 more than £20m in the past two financial years to prevent the service from going into the red as it has invested in the new system.