The current trend is for NHS IT procurements to be signed for no longer than three years, suggesting that policy makers envisage the national programme being rolled out in this timeframe. But while the policy makers (quite rightly) spend time defining the requirements of the national architecture, the challenges facing the NHS increase daily.

Clinicians, chief executives and finance directors need to harness technology now to meet stiff challenges, such as reducing waiting lists and meeting performance targets. The good news is that quick wins are achievable. It is possible to 'mind the gap' between the current situation and the roll-out of the national architecture.

What organisations need to be doing now is putting in place flexible, easy-tomigrate solutions that meet today's demands and lay foundations for the national architecture.

The key requirement must be in-built interoperability. The governmentmandated e-GIF framework has set out standards for the exchange of information between disparate IT systems, based on XML technology. This is a software and platform-neutral, web-based standard that enables the extraction and sharing of information between previously 'lockedin' applications.

The detail of the national architecture is yet to be agreed, but we do know that XML will be the enabler behind its interoperability. The one way for NHS organisations to ensure they have futureproof systems is to convert all the data in their departmental and organisation-wide systems into a non-proprietary, XMLbased format, so that it can interoperate with any system - now and in the future.

It often seems as if the current problems facing the NHS, such as waiting lists and bed management, are related to a lack of resources. But this is not the whole picture.

Many problems could be alleviated if NHS professionals had the information they need at the point of care, from many separate systems in primary and secondary organisations, to treat patients, prescribe drugs and admit and discharge them in a timely fashion.

XML-based solutions allow information to be joined up in this way, deliver benefits fast, allow the more effective use of resources and deliver higher levels of patient care.

Using currently available, cost-benefit driven technology, the existing skill-sets of the NHS and an incremental approach, the NHS can go a long way in meeting today's challenges, while putting the building blocks in place to interoperate with the national infrastructure of tomorrow. l