Published: 15/08/2002, Volume III, No. 5818 Page 15

Professor Sir John Pattison (pictured above) is the Department of Health's director of research, analysis and information.

This makes him sound like an arch Whitehall bureaucrat, but this is not a description applied by anyone who has met him.

Sir John has opened his door to NHS IT suppliers in an almost unprecedented way and most have come away praising his willingness to listen to new ideas.

He is also manages to combine obvious intelligence and a careful precision in his use of language with an approachable manner and a genuine enthusiasm for his new role.With a background in medical microbiology, Sir John readily admits he is not an expert on IT systems - but he appreciates what they can do.

He is pleased to find the DoH, at least, has better IT systems than he used in academia.

At home, he uses internet auctions to buy rare first editions of 20th century novels and to look up weather forecasts before he goes windsurfing on the south coast.

Sir John occupies a key position in NHS IT.

Junior health minister Lord Hunt has set up a taskforce to drive progress on the new NHS IT programme, on which Sir John leads for the DoH.

Reporting to him will be the new NHS IT programme director: a 'vital'appointment, a name for which is expected imminently.

Sir John admits he had to swallow hard when asked to add IT to his research and development responsibilities by NHS chief executive Nigel Crisp.'My first reaction was to ask, 'Is this the poisoned chalice?'' But he says there is a logical fit between IT and the DoH research, analysis and information directorate.

He is quite clear that his head is 'on the block'and delivery is vital.However, he is convinced that the benefits of better systems are too important to fail.

Key components of the new strategy - such as electronic booking and prescribing - should be in place already, he says.

It is 'unacceptable' that people should have to wait for appointments and operations, but the 'real benefits'will come from delivering new tools to support clinicians and cut errors.

So far, the new IT programme has been developed largely by the DoH, NHS Information Authority and information policy unit in a huddle with consultants and suppliers.

Sir John says 'a lot more energy'must now be put into local commitment and implementation.

'We need to prove we can do it, and That is why I have become so interested in hitting targets, just one after the other, 'he says.

'We need to show we are capable of hitting targets and doing something of a widespread nature, across the NHS, to consistent national standards.'

Having said which, he concedes that the fast-approaching targets for giving consultants desk-top IT by September and having 100 per cent pathology messaging in place by December will prove 'extremely tough'.

He is also aware of concern over the tight timetable for procuring the key elements of the IT programme.

'We are intent on doing this as quickly as possible, but not irresponsibly.We have to assure people we have a well thought-out outline business case and procurement strategy, 'he says.

He also emphasises the key role of strategic health authorities in delivering the programme, which he expects to roll out in 'more than two'waves from November 2003.

Though some commentators have pointed out that this means some areas of the country may see no action on the national programme for some time, Sir John says he is determined that everywhere will be involved by 2005.

He inspires a surprising degree of confidence that this may actually happen.

CV Professor Sir John Pattison is director of research, analysis and information and head of genetics at the Department of Health.

Until seconded to the DoH, he was viceprovost and professor of medical microbiology at University College London.

He also chaired the government's Spongiform Encephalopathy advisory committee from 1995-99.

From 1992-95, he was chair of the physiological medicine and infection board and a member of the Medical Research Council, later becoming MRC's senior medical adviser.

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