In the first move towards an electronic link-up across the entire UK National Health Service, the Department of Health has set a 1 April deadline and a #1 million budget to connect its senior executives by email.
A national email system is vital to "reduce the bureaucratic flow of paper that clogs the NHS", admitted health minister Alan Milburn.
This project marks the first stage in a bid to increase usage of the NHSnet. This is the massive nationwide network set up two years ago to connect all health organisations but not all health trusts have even used the system yet. The 1 April deadline marks the beginning of an ongoing bid to boost its uptake and eventually link all health authorities, NHS Trusts, the NHS Executive and the DoH by mail.
Starting by connecting senior administrative staff, the DoH aims to reach most medical staff including GPs and hospital doctors and nurses by 1999. And with a #150 million budget for adding GPs to the Net it plans to have all vital network connections operational by 2002.
Only 20 per cent of NHS chief executives already use email. The #1 million allocated for connecting them, and the three months remaining before the deadline, will be used to purchase new PCs, implement email software in existing machines and train chief executives and board members to use the messaging service efficiently.
While some insiders claim that meeting this deadline will involve unmanageable amounts of work the NHS is confident it is realistic, claiming "many Trusts are already set up for email".
But connecting chief executives is only a drop in the ocean. Many Trust officials stress the urgency of bringing more people in, particularly GPs.
Ross Langford, an NHS spokesman, said: "While we can?t force GPs to join the network, we are actively encouraging them by only reimbursing the purchase of network compatible equipment."
John Aird, the director of information management and technology at United Bristol Healthcare NHS Trust, said: "A few GPs are connected but for the most part it?s a real stumbling block. Yet, they are an essential part of the ?natural community?."
Aird, who is confident that his Trust will meet the April deadline, added: "About 200 of our staff are already on email but additional links within the health service and between our nine hospitals will play a large role in improving operational efficiency, especially considering the wide geographical dispersion of our hospitals."
Rebecca Driver, communications manager of Peterborough Hospitals NHS Trust, agreed. "Connection to GPs in particular presents exciting opportunities. In the meanwhile Peterborough is making very good progress and expects to meet the NHS April deadline."
Clare Austin, head of communications at University Hospital Birmingham, said: "We already have internal email but wider communication can only be a good thing."
But she raised common fears about wider electronic links - cost and security, cautioning that "money and security are definitely important to look at".
But Langford pointed to a security review carried out by Dame Fiona Caldicott, a former BMA official and claimed: "The NHS is doing all it can to see that no unauthorised access is made to patient information. One way of helping this is the avoidance of having a central database containing all of a patient's details."
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