By Nick Golding
Managers are facing huge difficulty ensuring their computers are compatible with those in the NHS. If the system was working correctly it would mean services users could receive single assessments and avoid having separate meetings with NHS and council staff.
Councils say inadequate guidance is thwarting their ability to bring in IT systems capable of sharing selected confidential client information between health and social care. For example, departments are allowed to buy systems which cannot link up with those in neighbouring councils or strategic health authorities.
It is still unclear whether information can be properly shared despite an estimated£6.2bn being spent on the NHS's National Programme for IT.
The system is further complicated by the Department for Education & Skills' supposed lead in devising a parallel system to enable information about children to be shared between councils and the NHS.
David Johnstone, Devon CC's director of social services, said: 'There's a degree of confusion and a fair amount of negativity and scepticism over whether this huge vision can be delivered.
'What we don't have at present is good committed leadership across government departments to help us implement these systems in a coherent way.'
Devon, with its partners Cornwall CC, Plymouth City Council, Torbay Council and 19 NHS trusts, illustrates the potential of shared information. The partners believe the implementation of an electronic single assessment process could lead to a net saving of£2.7m over three years, enabling more to be spent on the care itself.
Mr Johnstone said the new system would reduce bureaucracy, improve the quality of assessments and cut hospital readmissions. Few other areas have come close to realising its potential.
Stephen Howes, the Society of Information Technology Management's acting managing consultant, said the separate launch of government initiatives to join up adult and children's care led to different systems being implemented and different cultures of information sharing.
He said there is little guidance for local partners who face the dilemma of whether to upgrade existing systems or start from scratch. Most councils claim they have been given too little cash to invest in improvements.
The priority of the National Programme for IT had been to ensure the booking of appointments, but critics say this has not worked.
'In my experience the linking up with a local authority comes well down the agenda. It's not received the same funding from the Department of Health,' Mr Howes said.
'You generally find that local authorities and [strategic] health authorities say they want more specific support for these sorts of initiatives.'
One director of social care said he was shocked to discover howlittle the NHS invested in non-priority IT. 'They've used IT money to cover up financial problems in prescription overspend and that sort of thing,' he said.
The computer woe forms the latest threat to joint working between health and social care which was made a priority in the government's Our health, our care, our say white paper.
Already professionals are angry about the uncertainty surrounding proposed NHS boundary changes which has disrupted local relationships and the health service's budget deficit, which has seen costs being shunted onto social care.
A spokesperson for the NHS IT programme said a group had been established to examine practical and ethical issues surrounding information sharing and new policies were being developed.