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Editorial: Province should learn IT lessons

The B.C. government should learn from its mistakes with information-technology systems, not keep repeating them.

The B.C. government should learn from its mistakes with information-technology systems, not keep repeating them. The concern of physicians in Nanaimo over Island Health’s new electronic health records system is the latest chapter in the costly saga of what happens when ambitious computer systems don’t work.

After a year of testing, the health authority implemented its $174-million paperless iHealth system at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. Senior physicians say it’s a huge failure. They say the system is so flawed, doctors in the Nanaimo hospital’s intensive-care and emergency departments have given up and reverted to pen and paper.

According to Island Health, when the system is working smoothly, it will be installed in the north Island and then in Victoria hospitals in 2017.

Island Health is at the forefront of the Health Ministry’s plans for a provincewide health-records network, which will presumably cost billions. Before that money is spent, the government should ensure the system works satisfactorily and will not drain the treasury.

So far, the province’s record is bleak.

B.C. teachers struggled for years with the BCeSIS student-information record-keeping system, saying it was slow, archaic and prone to failure. The government spent $97 million over 10 years on the system, which was troublesome right from the start. It got so bad, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation considered boycotting the system.

Meanwhile, the Saanich school district was developing its own student-information system that could be used by other districts — 40 of the province’s 60 school districts were interested. Saanich officials estimated the system could be developed for $5 million, with yearly maintenance costing less than $1 million.

The Education Ministry sidestepped the Saanich system and bought one from Fujitsu, the company that had supplied the flawed BCeSIS, for $100 million, with annual costs estimated at more than $9 million. The new system was glitchy and slow upon implementation, frustrating teachers trying to set up student schedules, take attendance and enter marks.

In 2012, the government rolled out its $182-million Integrated Case Management system for social services that was supposed to replace 56 antiquated programs with one system to protect vulnerable children and adults.

But the government scaled back the project to stay on budget, and only 17 of the old programs were replaced. Front-line staff complained that the system was cumbersome and didn’t work as intended. The system was criticized by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the representative for children and youth, and auditor general Carol Bellringer for failing to work as promised.

B.C.’s is not the only government to make a mess of rolling out large IT systems. The federal government’s Shared Services website, in an article entitled What prevents large IT projects from being successful, studied 19 projects in five countries.

Among the reasons such projects fail, the study found, were poor governance, lack of leadership, poor quality control, bad planning and failure to understand the needs of the client.

It’s an IT tradition to blame users when a system does not work. But a computer system should work for the users, not the other way around. Too many systems seem designed primarily to serve the needs of administrators.

The B.C. government should not dismiss the concerns of the Nanaimo doctors, or any users of large IT systems. Planning a computer system needs to start at the front lines. Its first goal should be to make life easier, not harder, for the clients and the people who serve them.