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IT investment key to health savings

IT investment key to health savings - Featured Image

Penny-pinching governments should invest in information technology to improve health quality while cutting waste and reducing inefficiency, AMA President Professor Brian Owler has said.

As the Federal Government pushes ahead with an overhaul of the much-maligned Personally Controlled Electronic Health Records (PCEHR) system, Professor Owler said policymakers and health system administrators needed to invest in the use of information technologies in providing health services.

He said doctors and hospitals had embraced IT in their everyday practice, but there was not the unifying structure to integrate these systems to ensure patients received seamless, well-coordinated and cost-effective care.

“Doctors have embraced IT in practices, particularly our GPs,” the AMA President said. “The problem is that all of these systems have been built up as silos, rather than allowing people to communicate and talk to each other. What we need to do is develop the ability to link that IT with the hospital.”

The previous Labor Government’s much-vaunted PCEHR was intended to provide part of that link, giving patients and their doctors access to their medical records, wherever and whenever they were needed.

But its adoption has fallen far short of expectations amid concerns from the AMA and others that the ability of patients to edit their record had fatally compromised its usefulness as a clinical tool.

An Abbott Government-commissioned review called for an overhaul of the system to make it opt out and to curb the extent to which it could be altered by patients.

The AMA President said that, over time, the PCEHR had morphed into a “sort of grandiose plan” as people pushed for more and more features, and in the end it outgrew any usefulness.

“What we need to do with the PCEHR is scale it back, allow it to be the vehicle that allows us to do what we need to do – provide the clinical information between doctors, allow that doctor-to-doctor communication, so that we can actually know what people are saying to each other. That’s the sort of direction the PCEHR needs to go down.”

Professor Owler lamented that $1 billion had so far been wasted on the scheme, but said that should not deter governments from investing in IT for the health system.

He said the ability to quickly and seamlessly share information would not only improve the efficiency of the health system, but also reduce unwanted clinical variation, delivering improved health outcomes for patients and reducing costs through more effective treatment.

The AMA President said that on a trip to the United States last year, he had seen first-hand how hospitals in Chicago and Washington DC equipped with advanced IT systems were able to use sophisticated techniques like predictive analytics to improve the quality and efficiency of the care they provided.

“They can actually predict for a patient with certain characteristics, what should be done to prevent that patient from developing a disease, or they can predict if that patient is likely to get into trouble within the next few months. And so they’re more pro-active about trying to intervene,” he told the National Press Club.

“That’s the sort of direction, that’s the…smarter way, that we need to be heading.

“Unless we have that sort of infrastructure that is being developed that reduces the waste, that reduces unwanted clinical variation, then we are always going to continue to struggle.”

Professor Owler said there was “no reason” similar systems could not be used in Australia.

“There’s no reason why, in a country of 24 million people, we can’t do this. There are regions in the United States where they have systems that cover a population that’s larger than that,” he said. “So, there’s no reason why this cannot be done. It just needs some resolve, and it needs to focus on what we need to do to make the system work.”

Adrian Rollins