Telstra offers assurances on cancer register security

Calls for swift passage of legislation establishing the National Cancer Screening Register

Telstra has said it is “well placed” to establish the government’s National Cancer Screening Register and that it will deliver a platform that meets the government’s privacy and security requirements.

The Department of Health announced earlier this year it had awarded the $220 million contract to establish and operate the register to Telstra. The register will replace nine existing registers including the states’ cervical cancer registers.

Although the register has bipartisan support, the decision to award the contract to a for-profit provider has been a subject of controversy, with Labor’s shadow health minister, Catherine King, claiming that Telstra has a “questionable record of privacy breaches”.

Enabling legislation for the register — the National Cancer Screening Register Bill 2016 and the National Cancer Screening Register (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2016 — is currently before a Senate inquiry.

Telstra has called for parliament to pass the legislation before 30 October to avoid any delays in implementing the new register.

The telco has argued that since the establishment in 2013 of Telstra Health as a standalone business unit, it has built a team with “world class clinical, strategy, policy, technology and health industry experience” and become one of Australia’s largest digital health companies through the investment of $235 million and the acquisition of a number of companies.

“Telstra Health is uniquely placed to provide the Register as we have the necessary size, scale and mixture of clinical and technical expertise to successfully build, migrate and operate the Register and provide better access to healthcare information,” the telco argued in a submission to the Senate inquiry.

It will employ the same security standards that would apply if the government were to build and operate the register, Telstra said.

The Australian Medical Association said that although it does not oppose the outsourcing of clinical information registries in principle it was concerned about Telstra Health’s lack of direct previous experience in operating similar registries and a “lack of transparency around the process for awarding this contract, in particular the timing of the announcement.”

Labor has argued that the bills to create the register had been “rushed” into parliament because the government had decided to award the contract to Telstra before any debate on the register’s merits and associated privacy and data protections.

A submission from Cancer Council Australia said the bills should be passed “expeditiously”.

“Concerns about issues such as privacy are often raised when a major public health initiative, underpinned by the management of population-level health data, is introduced or reformed,” a submission from the council said. “While such concerns might in some cases be in the public interest, the core priority of any Parliament should be the saving or extending of its constituents’ lives.”

A public hearing of the Senate inquiry is scheduled for 29 September.

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