The lack of ICT in healthcare has led to lower productivity and more labour-intensive processes, and has exposed more patients to more errors, according to IBM Australia managing director Andrew Stevens. Stevens said that more money needs to be spent on healthcare IT, putting special emphasis on data analysis.
Andrew Stevens (Credit: IBM Australia)
Addressing the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia today, Stevens said that at the current rate of healthcare spending, and coupled with the ageing population, healthcare would account for almost half of government expenses if nothing was done to fix the health system.
"Australia's healthcare sector already costs taxpayers approximately $100 billion per year, equivalent to 10 per cent of GDP, and health expenditure is growing faster than GDP," he said.
"Within 20 years, Treasury expects Australia's healthcare bill to top $250 billion as the population ages and as serious and chronic disease levels increase."
He said that this was further exacerbated by the lack of investment in ICT, which would raise productivity. According to Stevens, only 1.5 per cent of revenue per annum is spent in ICT in the healthcare industry, compared to 2.5 per cent in other industries.
Stevens compared the healthcare industry to others; unlike banking, where customers expect and take for granted inter-institutional transfers, healthcare records can't be transferred between providers; unlike the airline industry, where reservations are connected to ticketing, payment and loyalty systems, 20 per cent of lab tests have to be repeated unnecessarily because medical records aren't available at the point of care. These inefficiencies result in doctors wasting about a quarter of their time collecting information rather than treating patients, he said.
Australia is making headway in bringing its e-health system up to date with a $466 million electronic investment for personally controlled e-health records (PCEHR), which the government has pledged to have up and running by 1 July 2012. A consortium, led by Accenture, will be responsible for building the IT infrastructure for the scheme, IBM will deliver its National Authentication Service for Health, and a consortium led by McKinsey will undertake changing management.
While Stevens applauded the progress so far, he said that in order to take the next step and diagnose problems in the healthcare system, Australia needs to consider implementing intelligence gathering and data analytics.
"Right now, the only thing the healthcare system optimises for is activity. We ask its customers: did you get treated? Or, how many hours, days or months did you wait for treatment? What if we asked: did you get better?" he said.
Stevens said that the system could be improved by predicting system failures ahead of time, reducing wastage by preventing duplication, using lessons learned from one part of the system and applying to another — all initiatives that are being employed in the mining, finance and energy sectors.
He said that the use of analytics could be used to improve healthcare delivery and transform the healthcare system.
"We'll be able to apply analytics to look across many patients' histories and unlock new insight into the treatment of a disease, which in turn could accelerate the discovery of new drugs and therapies," he said.
"We'll be able to track and report infectious diseases to predict high-risk populations, enabling early intervention. We'll be able to give people compelling information to help them change damaging behaviours before they become chronically ill."
Looking farther into the future, Stevens predicted a healthcare system that made use of learning systems, such as IBM's Watson computer, which would be able to search through every medical paper ever written to answer questions with confidence.
"Today it is impossible for a human being to remember and process all the medical information available to doctors, which is one of the reasons 20 per cent of medical errors are due to delayed diagnosis.
"Computers like Watson will be able to act as a doctor's assistant — providing instantaneous answers based on information no single human being could absorb in a lifetime," he said.