BOOKS

Wellard's NHS Handbook 2001/02 Publisher: JMH Publishing Ltd.

ISBN:0-9533684-6-7.327 pages.£47.50 (£43 for NHS Confederation members).

As ever, the 16th edition of the NHS Handbook is a mine of information about all aspects of the running of the health service.

Putting together a reference tome such as this on an annual basis must be a gargantuan task, and seeing it through to publication a labour of Hercules, lasting for the best part of the year.

But in an age when the whole shape of the health service is undergoing permanent revolution, that does rather raise questions about its value.

Does a snapshot of the NHS at one point in time really meet the needs of those who buy it, when ministers can change their minds and reshape the whole edifice between first proof and final publication?

This year's handbook shows all too clearly just what problems long publication lead times can have.

Ken Jarrold's masterly account of the central role of health authorities in the modernised NHS is rather undermined by a box of text, obviously inserted in haste, explaining that HAs are now to be replaced by new bodies with completely different roles and responsibilities.

Pamela Charlwood's tour of the management agenda falls foul of the same unforeseen organisational revolution.

Then there is Ivan Kremer's 'acid test' for care trusts: the way in which they operate when forced on uncooperative health and social care bodies - a test rendered redundant by changes to the legislation while the book was in print so that such a thing cannot now happen.

And so it goes on.

It is not that the handbook has become worse - indeed, editor Peter Merry's preface mentions the shorter turnround times it now enjoys - but when the pace of change sometimes outstrips the ability of a weekly magazine to keep up, what chance does an annual have?

That said, there is much that is valuable here, and a great deal of information with a rather longer shelf-life.

Edmund Jessop's account of the public health agenda is particularly thorough.

Yet there are some omissions:

surely the Commission for Health Improvement now looms larger in our lives than its limited mentions here would suggest. But perhaps That is the timing problem again.

The handbook has survived as long as it has because there is a need for the up-to-date reference material it offers, and long may it go on meeting those needs. But if this year shows anything, it is that its publishers need to rethink how it fulfils its mission.