Health sectors trail in computer spending

The Australian health sector is trailing behind overseas counterparts in information technology expenditure, a recent survey revealed. The report by the Brisbane-based Collaborative Health Informatics Centre (Chic) found Australian health IT budgets static, and represented only 1.5 per cent of health expenditure, lagging behind other developed countries such as the US (3.5 per cent) and Britain (2 per cent).

Health care also lags behind other information-intensive industries: finance devotes almost 10 per cent of its total budget to IT, cultural and recreational services spends about 3 per cent, and the wholesale trade sector spends more than 5 per cent.

Nicole McMonagle, Chic's marketing coordinator, says the lack of IT spending by the region's health sector is "a very serious concern.

"In America, the equivalent of a jumbo jet of people are dying every day due to preventable medical errors, such as conflicting drug prescription dosages. These are simple things that IT can ensure don't happen," McMonagle said.

Dr Michael Walsh, CEO of the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, said the benefit of improved IT service in the health sector was "reducing the margin of error in adverse events to minute levels.

"Increased integration and standardisation in equipment and application across local jurisdictions, bridging the gaps between complex systems, ensures a better service," he said.

IT can help ease pressure on doctors by providing them with better data, he said. Clinical information systems and software can help medicos gather facts and aid decisions.

They can chart trends and plan strategies.

The Chic study, Health: An Exploratory Study of Health IT in Australia and New Zealand, interviewed health IT professionals from 164 health organisations and 200 key vendors last November.

McMonagle said health IT spending in this region was often regarded as a cost rather than an investment. Budgetary constraints mean decisions are price-driven, and the decision-making process can be opaque and lengthy.

"As a consequence it is difficult for IT companies to successfully deploy in the health IT sector."

Considering its low funding, Australia is in some ways leading "telehealth" databases, such as NSW health service's intranet system that can be accessed across the state. "We've had to think up innovative ways with level of care across the continent," she said.

The survey found the lack of adequate funding for health IT was leaving IT companies with little opportunity for new product development, at a time of dramatic growth for the IT industry as a whole. Nevertheless, there are a number of local IT companies developing products for the health sector, and last year 11 health IT companies floated on the Australian Stock Exchange.

Recognition of the need to invest in IT as a tool and enabler opens up avenues to deal with the growing pressures on the health system, and would change the outcome of delivering "good" health to something considered "excellent", the report said.

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