LONDON, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- Britain's National Health Service said this week it is launching a colossal $10.9 billion electronic data initiative aimed at connecting thousands of NHS health professionals into a single national infrastructure.
One of the world's biggest IT projects, it is expected to be complete by the end of the decade.
But as with the move to paperless medical records in the United States, concerns over patient privacy are dogging the effort.
The aim of the massive project is to replace an ageing hodgepodge of 5,000 different computer networks with one centralized system that can be accessed by 100,000 doctors, 380,000 nurses and 50,000 other health professionals who work in the NHS.
These healthcare professionals can then exchange patient information quickly and efficiently, the program's creators claim.
However, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, doctors' support for the system appears to be waning as costs spiral and implementation lags behind the original timetable.
For example, a survey conducted by Medix, an online resource for the health profession, found that doctors are becoming increasingly skeptical that the National Program for IT can deliver on its promises.
The study, published last week, found that, although many doctors said the program could provide clinical care benefits to the NHS, more said they were worried about how the project was being implemented.
On a positive note, 59 percent of GPs and 66 percent of other doctors said the program would improve clinical care in the long term.
However, just 17 percent said they supported the project, with 57 percent against it, compared to three years ago, when 47 percent of doctors thought the program was a good use of NHS resources.
What's more, only 1 percent of respondents in this year's survey said it was a "good" or "excellent" program.
Moreover, those who had heard of the changes ahead of time said they were "seriously concerned" about confidentiality, with 71 percent of GPs and 46 percent of other doctors saying patient records would be less secure once the program came into effect.
One doctor wrote in his response: "Huge waste of money and confidentiality likely to be seriously compromised. Does choice agenda extend to patients having right to not have their confidentiality breached? NHS email cumbersome. The biggest government IT disaster yet?"
Responding to the Medix survey, NHS Connecting for Health said its own research, by pollsters Mori, had found staff to be supportive of what the program is trying to achieve.
"There is usually a dip in confidence in IT change programs as early implementation gets underway," the agency said.
"The National Program is within budget and ahead of schedule in some areas and broadly on time in others," a NHS spokesman told United Press International.
Nonetheless, the British government's opponents have used the controversy as political fodder.
Officials from the British Conservative Party summed up the massive project as proceeding "really badly."
The scheme had already run billions over budget, there had been no proper consultation with GPs, and there were compatibility issues with present systems, BCP spokeswoman Jenny Parsons told UPI.
"It's going to be another government IT disaster waiting to happen," she said.
However, a British medical group said it generally supported the goals of the new system, despite concerns over cost and patient privacy.
Richard Vautrey, a member of the British Medical Association's GP committee responsible for IT issues, said he was "reasonably reassured" by the safeguards government officials were putting in place to protect confidentiality of medical records, but added that patients should still have a choice whether or not to be included in the broad IT initiative.
But all in all, Vautrey feels Britain's transition to electronic medical records is a move whose time had come.
"I don't think it will be a disaster. There's too much at stake to allow it to be a disaster," he said.
Electronic medical records are only one aspect of the sweeping new system.
Doctors will be able to access a Choose and Book system, with which they will be able to select and book hospital appointments at a convenient time for their patients. The idea is that when a patient needs to be referred to a consultant, they can book an appointment on the spot with their GP, cutting out the lengthy delays between visiting a GP and receiving an appointment from the hospital.
Paper prescriptions will be replaced by the Electronic Prescription Service, in which prescriptions will be transmitted electronically to a chosen pharmacy, which can then prepare the patient's medicine in advance.
The Picture Archiving and Communications System will allow images such as X-rays and scans to be stored digitally and all but remove traditional film from the NHS. Health professionals will be able to access the images on a laptop or tablet PC, speeding up delivery of information and cutting costs associated with film processing or storage.
A Quality Management and Analysis System will give GP practices and local health authorities feedback on the quality of care delivered to patients, while health professionals will also have access to a secure national e-mail and directory service.
All of these systems will be operated through N3, a high-speed broadband centralized national network replacing the old patchwork infrastructure.
Launching the electronic care record program in 2003, Health Secretary John Reid promised that by 2010, every patient in Britain -- some 50 million people -- would have an electronic care record that could be accessed by medical staff anywhere in the country.
"At present, most patients have a number of paper and computer-based records that cannot be quickly transferred around the system. There is no central record containing all their health and care information. In the 21st century, this is clearly not an efficient way to store health information," Reid said.