NHS IT reforms could be a boost for your career

09 Oct 2003 View Comments
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There could scarcely have been a time when technology has had a higher profile than in today's NHS.

IT professionals are right at the heart of the reform of healthcare.

The sheer scale of operations - the NHS is the second biggest employer in the world - makes its IT a huge challenge.

But the real difference is in the fact that lives literally depend on getting it right.

The storage, security and management of confidential patient data is at the core of NHS IT.

If you see the future of information technology in the fast and flexible transformation of data into information, then the NHS may be your perfect home.

There is a huge range of IT functions servicing this need for accurate data.

Keeping a technology-intensive, data-hungry organisation moving, under the watchful scrutiny of critics, analysts and publicly-appointed bodies, is a challenge in itself.

But this is an area where innovation is part of a creed.

The National Programme for NHS IT envisages a central 'data spine' around which a truly national service can be built. Doing so raises every one of the key issues in IT today: integration, interoperability, security, storage and online services.

Other innovative areas, specific to health, are also becoming paramount, including electronic patient records and remote diagnosis.

The UK still has a global reputation for the excellence of its medical research. Increasingly, the computer is at the heart of this work.

The scale of the projects means health is the driving force in areas such as grid computing.

Analyst Gartner predicts that bioinformatics - IT supporting medical science - will be one of the biggest technology growth areas of the next decade.

The National Programme stresses a UK-wide service. But it's important to remember that power is largely devolved to regional trusts and local services.

'The NHS offers a vast range of jobs in Information Technology, from electronic patient records to web design to IT support,' says a Department of Health spokesman.

'NHS Strategic Health Authorities, Trusts and Primary Care Trusts around the country employ IT professionals at all levels.'

Some Trusts take a very proactive role in encouraging training, and all are committed to new developments. Stockport NHS Health Community Trust, for example, has spent the past two years integrating core applications in preparation for the government's 2005 egovernment deadline.

'We want to support our own web development - we want to share information between users,' says online services manager Ian Curr. 'We have as many as 30,000 new documents for GPs to deal with every month.'

Stockport uses Attachmate's Session Pool Manager, which sits on a Windows 2000 server and receives requests from users working in Microsoft Office.

Requests are passed to the Trust's Unix-based patient administration system through dedicated network lines.

Relevant information is returned to the user. Visual Basic programming at the client end allows easier retrieval of documents.

Stockport's IT team is continually trying to modernise what its user sees. Skilled web developers are in high demand.

'I've just recruited a third developer for web applications and we're looking for a third editor for static content,' says Curr.

The Trust is attempting to unify and integrate its systems - and, for this reason, a number of specific skills are useful.

'SQL and ASP are our premium requirements,' says Curr. 'XML is also important and .Net is desirable.'

But specialist skills aren't always a prerequisite. Some NHS organisations are looking for IT workers with sound knowledge of IT in general.

Be keen, and be prepared to adapt your existing skills base, and you'll have a better chance of securing work in the NHS.

'I would always go with the candidate who can pick up technical skills quickly,' says Hans Solgaard, head of IT at Mid-Yorkshire NHS Trust.

The Trust uses a Windows-based infrastructure to provide data access and email provision to health professionals.

A cluster of servers powers Windows 2000 and Microsoft Active Directory, which controls which information users can access.

Microsoft Terminal Services allows users across the Trust to log on remotely, and employees can access the network from any network terminal.

The system provides mobile working capability for more than 10,000 health professionals.

But despite being a heavy user of Microsoft products, Solgaard says the Trust isn?t prejudiced against professionals with other skills.

'Candidates need to be able to explain how they can approach a problem - and how they would use a particular technical solution,' he says.

Like all other sectors of IT, health technology workers must be prepared to move with the demands of a fast-changing marketplace.

And with some of the forthcoming innovations connected to the National Programme and bioinformatics, the NHS could be one the most exciting places to be.

Skills will obviously vary from job to job and from Trust to Trust. But the NHS itself is keen to stress some core soft skills that may prove vital to a successful career:

Communication - the ability to work accurately and effectively with medical staff and patients

Information-gathering and organisation - clear thinking and managerial excellence are vital

Technical skills - the NHS needs many of the same skills as elsewhere, but flexibility needs to be added to systematic thinking

Enthusiasm - the NHS is a pressurised environment in which teamwork, personal initiative and drive are important

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