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New IT Network Will Serve All UK Physicians

The delivery of an integrated IT network for the NHS has begun with a £45 million upgrade to NHSnet.

The upgrade will improve the speed and reliability with which GPs, hospitals and NHS trusts can connect to NHSnet, and is the Government's first step in replacing the current, piecemeal IT NHS infrastructure with a modern, integrated service.

This project is, however, just a short-term 'stop-gap' development until the roll-out of high-speed broadband access. This will enable new services such as the electronic transfer of prescription between GPs and pharmacists, booking of appointments to see specialists, electronic patient records and digital X-rays and imaging.

"Broadband access will make a significant contribution to services designed to improve patient care and will give health staff the increased bandwidth needed to deliver the services people want," said Health Minister Lord Hunt. "It's another mark of progress being made to implement our IT programme."

He had, however, indicated that some aspects of the IT programme may be delayed, saying the Government must be realistic about the IT industry's ability to deliver new services.

A review of the NHS's IT requirements last year by Derek Wanless recommended that Government spending on IT needed to double to around £2.2 billion a year if service-wide improvements were to be achieved.

Spending on IT, currently around £1 billion a year, will increase by £400 million from April, by £700 the year after and by £1.2 billion in 2005/6.

The mammoth overhaul will be headed up by Richard Granger, who was appointed as Director General of NHS IT last September. "The challenge at the moment is about taking the targets and decomposing them into a meaningful deployment plan - one that will mean something to patients, clinicians and managers. That is a very large planning exercise which we are only just beginning," he told the Financial Times.

The current £45 million upgrade will be funded by the NHS Information Authority and will see every GP practice receive a 256Kb fixed-link connection to NHSnet, while PCTs and strategic health authorities will receive a 2Mb connection.

The overhaul of NHS IT, including the provision of broadband access, is expected to be completed by March 2004 and will be provided by BT and Cable & Wireless.

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