The Treasury has at last approved the proposals put forward by a group of co-operating trusts in South West region to procure a high-specification electronic health record system. The decision comes three months later than the regional office had expected.

The EHR systems will replace South West regional office's current service contracts with EDS, which run out in 2002.

A call for tenders went to the Official Journal of the European Communities in mid-February. Because the total contract could be worth as much as£20m, the call is inviting bids from prime contractors, who will form consortia to deliver the solution, rather than from single suppliers.

The regional initiative - until recently managed by South West regional office director Jeremy Thorp - is a test-bed for the NHS Executive's plan to encourage trusts to work together on joint procurement exercises, reducing the need to prepare multiple business cases for very similar purchases.

But the fact that the project has taken 18 months to get to the point of an OJEC advertisement means it is already behind schedule, at least as far as the NHS's IT strategy, Information for Health , is concerned.

'It is clear now that the targets set by Information for Health will not be achieved on time, ' commented health systems consultant Roger Wallhouse.

'The strategy's huge agenda is part of the reason, but so are the procurement difficulties. It will be interesting to see if the South West pilot's approach really does advance the pace of procurements.'

Virtually all the large suppliers are expected to contest at least part of the contract. Both EDS and McKesson HBOC are believed to be bidding to supply a complete service, but will also supply a secondary software-only tender if their main bid is rejected.

The other major procurement exercise is in North West region, where trusts are replacing their patient administration systems.

Bolton recently confirmed its choice of iSoft, while Salford has ordered an Eclipsys Carevision product to add on to its SMS PAS.