Tory plans to outsource NHS IT to Microsoft and Google raises concerns

Reports that the Conservatives would encourage patients to store their NHS records with Google and Microsoft has drawn criticism from the IT industry.

Under plans revealed in The Times, the Conservatives may outsource patient records to companies such as Google or Microsoft if they won the next general election.

The original plan, which is being run under the £12.7 billion NHS National Programme for IT, is to store the records on the national patient record database called the Spine.

David Cameron told the Times that it wants people to use services like Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault, which both operate in the US, as an alternative to the Spine.

But Barry Murphy, head of technology at accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, said that while the new proposals would offer some cost savings, they “could open up a can of security worms”.

Any outsourced database “would need to be easily accessed yet stringently audited”, he said. “It would also need to be accompanied by an explicit and implicit trust that the data would not be misused, abused or lost.”

The responsibility for securing the records, at least according to the public, would remain with the NHS, he said.

The move could penalise the almost nine million households in Britian that do not have access to the internet, argued Richard Holway, chairman at analyst house TechMarketView.

Holway also queried claims by the Conservatives that their plan would save large amounts of money.

It was important to understand “that most of the costs of the NHS IT project have already been committed”, he said. “A cancellation would probably trigger higher costs by way of compensation to existing providers.”

The story has also raised questions about the party’s links to Google.

Steve Hilton, one of David Cameron’s closest advisers, is married to Rachel Whetstone, the company’s vice president of global communications and public affairs. Cameron flew to San Francisco to address the Google Zeitgeist conference in 2007 at the company’s expense. Five months ago, it was announced that Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, was joining a Conservative business forum to advise on economic policy.

The Liberal Democrats have protested that the plan could give Google unwarranted commercial advantage.

Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat, reportedly said: “It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth that there are repeated references to Google given the closeness of Team Cameron to that organisation, and it leaves concerns about commercial advantage being taken.”

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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