E-health measures progress as minority government looms

Announced funding for e-health trial sites will yield a proposal by the end of September, though the fate of the program remains uncertain

Election analysts predict that it could take as much as two weeks to decide the fate of the Australian Government, but planned e-health measures are expected to progress in as little as a month.

The $12.5 million provided by the Labor party during the election campaign to three pilot sites in Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales, is expected to yield a proposal for the implementation of voluntary, personally controlled e-health records on a national scale by the end of September.

NSW and Queensland state governments each committed a further $1.2 million in funding to the program, amounting to $14.9 million for the implementation of records.

The three sites - GPpartners in Brisbane, GP Access in the Hunter Valley and the Melbourne East GP Network - are in the process of collaborating on the proposal, which will see each provide specialised technologies and technical support to stakeholders.

GPpartners in Brisbane, for example, has been trialing its Health Record eXchange (HRX) software in 400 providers over the last five years, putting it in the best place to provide the software itself as well as the web-based interface required by both clinicians and patients to control the records.

GP Access, which provides services to 400 clinics on NSW’s Central Coast, has rolled out generic secure messaging software to 98 per cent of clinics in the area, allowing different systems to communicate and send referrals between practitioners and specialists. The GP network was a finalist in the Australian Telecommunications User Group’s (ATUG) national awards in 2006 for the proliferation of managed broadband services to GP clinics across the region and has aided some clinics in going completely paperless.

The Melbourne East GP Network has also facilitated the roll out of a secure messaging system based on Argus, as well as a shared referrals and health records system.

GP Access IT team leader, Jason Ruminek, told Computerworld Australia that the organisation was in a “holding pattern at this stage” over the funding, but that the project was still progressing.

“One of our ultimate goals is to show that this solution is scalable and that they’re inter-operable, so by definition there has to be some cooperation [between organisations],” he said.

“We’re listing all the things we’ve done, all the capabilities we’ve got, how we’re going to go about change management strategies and so forth in general practice, as well as obviously the technology behind accomplishing a couple of key goals.

“As it’s government-funded, it really depends on what the government decides they want to do. Because we’re in an election period, they’re not allowed to start any new initiatives.”

As part of its election commitments, Labor vowed to continue implementation of the $466.7 million e-health records program, first announced in the 2010/2011 Federal Budget.

The Liberal party, however, has pledged to scrap the e-health records program and potentially the unique health identifiers, the legislation of which passed in June, with Medicare Australia assigning identifiers to 97 per cent of Australians.

Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, indicated the possibility of reviving the Howard-era Access Card on the back of the identifiers, as reported by The Age last week, but his comments have since been denied as Coalition policy.

However, it is believed the current state of hung parliament could could see a change in policy as the three independent MPs, Bob Katter, Tony Windsor, and Rob Oakeshott, as well as Greens MP, Adam Bandt, negotiate the possibility of a minority government with either Labor or Liberal.

Liberal leader, Tony Abbott, has indicated that he could change the broadband policy as a compromise in negotiations.

It is believed that the onflow effects of revamping telecommunications in rural communities could have a significant impact on which party wins and, ultimately, whether national e-health measures industry have a future in the short term.

While the lack of federal funding for e-health programs is unlikely to heavily affect initiatives in metropolitan communities, the lack of good telecommunications and government intervention in regional areas could adversely affect the possibility of such programs.

“For rural communities, it’s very difficult to see how a commercial model could work to support those communities out there,” BT Global Health Practice clinical director, Janette Bennett, said.

“In that instance I think it does boil down to who wins power, and whether they are in power, relies on some of these independent folks who do have strong needs to support their rural communities.

“That will be very interesting how that pans out and the difference that makes to the policies. Given that NeHTA (National eHealth Transition Authority) was set up under the Liberal circumstance, both sides of the house have seen what is a growing demand in the population. It has to address it, it’s just a matter of how it goes about it, how much is in the public domain and how much is pushed out to the private sector.”

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