$20 billion healthcare system faces surgery

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The UK government looks set to scale back its $20 billion health service IT system in what opposition politicians are calling a massive U-turn.

The centralized system is designed to make patient records available to any doctor or hospital in England and to replace local NHS computer systems. It is planned to provide prescription drugs, email, computer accessible X-rays and a facility for patients to book appointments online

But the scheme has already been hit by delays and cost hikes, making it the largest single IT project in the UK, with costs expected to spiral to more than $20 billion by 2014.

Opponents claim the concept of a centralized system harks back to the 1970s and is simply a cash cow for the large consultancy firms tasked with its design and implementation.

UK Chancellor Alistair Darling said on TV over the weekend that he would be putting parts of the scheme on hold in his pre-Budget statement this week as it was not essential: 

"It's something I think we don't need to go ahead with just now."

The system to computerize medical records in a central database and link up more than 30,000 doctors and 300 hospitals was announced in 2002 by then Prime Minister Tony Blair, and was projected to be completed by 2010.

Opposition politicians say the British Government has spent $165 billion on IT since coming to power in 1997 and contracts worth a further $115 billion are due to be awarded in the next two years.