Quarrels an unwanted malady for e-health

Revelations this week that ministerial brawling is threatening the roll-out of electronic health records (EHRs) across Australia is a sad indicator of how Australia's research and development sector is being mistreated and starved out of existence.

Having half-heartedly pawed at the very real concept of e-health for the last five years, health minister Tony Abbott has decreed EHRs must be built over the next 12 months or the public servants concerned will suffer.

According to Abbott, EHRs may have a central database. They may or may not have multifunction smartcards. The Privacy Act may or may not be required to be changed. And where EHRs might be is open to speculation. That's a lot of maybes to get over in a year to make the government's single biggest IT challenge a reality.

Fortunately, a large part of the scoping and architecture of EHRs was passed to one of Australia's most talented research and development shops - the collaborative research centre known as the Distributed Systems Technology Centre (DSTC).

Established in 1992 as a centre of excellence in distributed systems technologies, DSTC acquired a reputation as one of the world's most effective and influential IT research organizations - especially for anything involving tangible service delivery from government back to the people.

Part of DSTC's appeal was a fierce vendor neutrality; a neutrality that saw representatives of rivals Sun and Microsoft publicly bury hatchets and hug on stage in the name of cohesive Web services standards at DSTC's annual conference.

You'd think DSTC would be assured a source of sustainable funding - at least to get e-health off the ground. Think again.

The research shop was federally de-funded in the last round of research grants and is now praying its kudos will attract investment from other sources. If funding does not arrive soon, the centre's collective holding of intellectual property - which can save taxpayers billions of health dollars in coming decades - will be forced to be disposed of in a tawdry fire-sale to arbitraging vendors.

The same vendors will then sell the same IP back to Australia as proprietary solutions at a cost of billions to the taxpayer - and all because the likes of Tony Abbott and Human Services Minister Joe Hockey cannot forgo a quarrel over who can pull rank.

Indeed, if doctors mistreated patients in the same way some ministers mistreat those working for the public interest, they would be banned from ever practicing again. Comments to Sandra_Rossi@idg.com.au

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