Complexity the major cause of healthcare project failure

18 Nov 2005

Sheer complexity combined with stringent project deadlines, rather than poor project management per se, is often what sinks IT projects in healthcare, a leading healthcare software expert has claimed.

Charlie Mead, senior director of healthcare strategy at Oracle Corporation, said healthcare projects are among the most complex IT projects of all and therefore very hard to deliver. “The problem with these large-scale projects is that the problems are complex and the interoperability issues are deep and ultimately have to do with the meaning of data. In legacy systems, you’ve got either the same name for five different things or five different names for the same thing – it’s the worst of both worlds,” he said in an interview with

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the healthcare system itself tends to be unreceptive to such projects. “It’s pretty well understood in the software engineering world how to manage large complex projects but large complex projects take a degree of rigour that the healthcare industry has not historically been very good at adopting,” he asserted.

To make matters worse, projects usually have to happen within a time frame that is simply unrealistic given their inherent complexity. “Unfortunately we still live in a world where much of software project management is schedule-based, which is where you set the deadline and people have to figure out how to meet it.”

Mead, who was in Dublin this week to speak at the conference of the Healthcare Informatics Society of Ireland (HISI), also commented on the recent debacle over PPARS (the Personnel, Payroll and Related Systems) in the Department of Health. He argued that, despite the understandable public concern over the failure, ceasing to invest in technology was not realistic.

“Healthcare is a business that more than any other requires information exchange. If people really want good and cost-effective but also safe care it requires information exchange and to put your head in the sand and say IT projects fail so we’re not going to spend money on them is being penny wise, pound foolish,” he said.

Oracle is one of the leading software providers in the IT healthcare area. In its Healthcare Transaction Base, the company provides the toolkit to build an electronic patient record (EPR) system. EPR is the focus of a number of major healthcare projects including the multi-billion-pound National Programme for IT in the UK. Research suggests that if a uniform system of patient records were in place in hospitals and GPs’ surgeries, it could help reduce the number of deaths from misdiagnosis and adverse drug reactions by up to 80pc a year.

The software development team in one Dublin hospital is currently building a test application on Oracle’s HTB technology, according to Mead.

By Brian Skelly