8th October 2003

More computers to keep us healthy?

 This morning Radio 4 mentioned new plans by the Government to automate hospital appointments.

At first I thought the Government might have found a use for old computers. You know… those early models that have been junked because they took half an hour to boot up.
With hospital waiting lists stretching over many months..even years and out-patients waiting for ages in rooms full of slowly ageing patients.. we don't exactly need state of the art stuff.
But no.. they surely must anticipate the latest-fastest-flat-screened hardware costing loads of money and programmed by armies of keen system analysts and coders.
I idly wondered if anything ever works properly these days as things get more and more complicated?

Take the Inland Revenue's new computers.

"Why did you send me a letter telling me to fill in such and such a form when I've already sent it to you and had an acknowledgement", I asked recently? "The computer doesn't know you've sent it in", was the reply, "so we're sending these letters to everyone on the data base", (millions). What exactly does the computer know, I wondered?
Anyway, getting back to the latest news...

That evening "South Today" had a piece about the new hospital appointments system. I pricked up my ears and listened to what was being said, as surely I'd heard only that morning that it was, "being considered".. a contract was in the offing… but what's this the reporter is talking to a doctor and a patient about what they think of the new system as if it were actually here already… surely they couldn't have issued requests for quotations, chosen a contractor, agreed a specification and actually implemented a system in less than one day!!! It must be a prototype system or a feasibility exercise to see how hard it's going to be?

We hear about how the doctor can log onto four different hospitals and get the best deal for his patient. We hear from the patient how much better it is not having to wait an age for letters to wing backwards and forwards arranging a suitable time. We hear about the potential cost savings and shrinking waiting lists the new system will bring.. how most appointments made the old way are not kept and the mayhem that subsequently ensues…(I actually heard that some patients had died in the queue which is a good excuse for not keeping an appointment?)

The patient tells the doctor when it's convenient for her to pay a visit to the local hospital.

How about just after I pick little Jimmy up from school and before we have our tea she asks?

The doctor studies his keyboard and presses a few keys… but wait what's this? The system is down!

The reporter keeps a brave face and mumbles something about how useful it would be if it were only working and passes the problem off as a "computer glitch".

What utter rubbish. Surely an omen? If a simple demonstration won't work at a pre-arranged time, what chance of a fully fledged system costing millions and millions of pounds with lots of bells and whistles.. and more glitches.

What will the doctor do?

Make a new appointment for Mrs. Brown to call in when the system's up and running will you nurse.

Would you like me to run "Scandisk", doctor, or will you just reboot and try again?

No nurse I'm too busy.

Shall I start a special appointment book for patients to call in to use your new system?

No nurse, just phone Mrs.Brown when the system's working.

She isn't on the phone doctor.

Send her a telegram nurse.

They don't do telegrams any more doctor.

Write her a letter then and tell her to come in and make an appointment.

Will it do next week doctor.. my computer's gone down and the printer's run out of ink and the man that fixes it has gone to Florida on holiday again.

If the system ever gets going properly.. who is going to run and maintain it? Surely more staff will be needed to cope with feeding more computers with data, more staff will need to be hired to deal with keeping the system going and fitting the latest software patches? And what happens when things go wrong?
It seems that, to some people at least, all the ills of the world can be solved by computers. Not so. They are timewasters and are counter to good efficient use of manpower. Just another tool of the beancounters.

Full page advertisement in the national papers. "New Post- Chief Data Processing Executive, Bournemouth Hospital, Salary scale Big Cheese 1, £150,000 per annum, share options when we go private, staff of 300, complete freedom in choice of new car, free use of villa in the south of France, knowledge of computers not necessary, seven-figure settlement pre-agreed if job doesn't please successful candidate or just can't cope"

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