Primary role for e-health in low-spending budget

NBN, IT skills likely to be sidelined in next Federal Budget, but Henry Tax recommendations will play some part

E-health is likely to take a primary role in the upcoming Federal Budget

E-health is likely to take a primary role in the upcoming Federal Budget

Speculation on what the Federal Government may introduce in its annual Budget on 11 May has centred on e-health.

As part of the Budget, it is believed the Government will introduce $2 billion in funding for the health sector, following the announcement of a National Health and Hospitals Network and ongoing national health reform initiatives. While e-health measures were not included in recent health reform announcements, industry bodies have speculated that electronic health initiatives are still on the agenda and may be introduced as part of the budget.

"We think there's going to be something there and we think it's going to be pretty specific on e-health, maybe patient records," Australian Computer Society (ACS) chief executive officer, Bruce Lakin, told Computerworld Australia.

"There is an acceptance that to deliver the outcomes the government is expecting, ICT has got to fundamentally play a part. We think that would be reflected in some sort of financial commitment under the budget."

Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) chief executive officer, Ian Birks, agreed the ICT industry was critical to the health reform, and that the Budget was a likely opportunity in which to introduce funding for specific initiatives.

A recent study by management consulting firm, Booz & Company, found that implementing e-health records could save the Federal Government up to $7.6 billion, namely in cost savings. Improved care programs and prevention measures as a result of a national e-health program could potentially save 5,000 lives each year.

However, some elementary e-health systems, such as those deployed to ambulance in most states, has largely been met with criticisms from paramedics.

The Government's recent response to the Henry Tax Review is also likely to play a part in the Federal Budget, though not all initiatives from the review would necessarily benefit the ICT industry.

The 40 per cent super tax on primary resources, for example, would be unlikely to have an impact even on ICT staff working in the industry.

Birks and Lakin both agreed that the super tax would have a "secondary impact" on the ICT industry rather than a direct influence, with Lakin adding that the Government's strategy behind the tax remains "a few steps away from ICT."

However, the reduced company tax would help small to medium businesses, and potentially incentivise direct foreign investment, particularly in the Research and Development field.

"Part of [foreign investor's] criteria is very much the tax regime, and that movement I believe will have a positive impact on Australia as a direct foreign investment," Birks said. "If we have relatively competitive international tax rates, it does make a difference because we are viewed as a potential investment location, particularly for ICT investment companies and large multi-nationals."

Birks said the AIIA expected the Government to commit less funding than previous budgets under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, with potential cut-backs in innovation and research. Existing infrastructure commitments would continue.

"They'll certainly be looking to balance the budget as quickly as possible and I'm sure they'll be looking for opportunities for less spending," he said. "We'd be pleased if it was 'business as usual'".

However, Lakin said the ACS was "expecting to be disappointed" regarding a continuing lack of support from the Government to address the national IT skills shortage. While applauding the Government's ICT Workforce Strategy - which impinges on the ACS for its professional employment programs - Lakin said the Government wasn't investing enough into IT skills and professional development of graduates. "The Government's cadetship and graduate schemes are modest in scope; in terms of them providing a pathway for ICT graduates, they don't offer enough places," he said. "We certainly think they should be doing more across the nation."

Lakin recognised that they weren't enough people undertaking IT graduate degrees - let alone joining the professional workforce - but the lack of recognition of the problem from the Government both in and outside of the public service was disappointing to the ACS.

"The Government is doing little, if anything, to ease the difficulties in that, either by increasing funding in universities for ICT-related courses or offering some sort of subsidy for the industry."

Despite the recent release of the NBN Implementation Study and a solidifying of potential costs of the fibre-to-the-home network, neither body saw much in the way of significant investments or projects relating to it.

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