Commonwealth establishes Australian Digital Health Agency to complement My Health Record

​The federal government has established an Australian Digital Health Agency, which will work with the public and private sectors in a bid to foster digital health innovation.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The federal government has announced the establishment of the Australian Digital Health Agency and an advisory board comprised of doctors, informatics specialists, digital experts, and customer service executives tasked with ensuring the nation's health system is technologically up to date.

Speaking at the Health Informatics Conference 2016 in Melbourne on Monday, Minister for Health Sussan Ley said the new agency will set the national agenda for technical and data standards, promote clear principles for interoperability, and open source development within the health system.

"I want the central role of the agency to foster digital health innovation and importantly, when we see new innovative technologies emerge with a strong benefit to clinicians and patients, the agency will be able to invest to deliver national outcomes," she said.

"Today we are embracing mobile technology, apps, and trackers. Tomorrow it could be artificial intelligence, individual precision medicines, tailored and personalised technologies as well as implantables."

The agency will become the system operator for My Health Record, the Australian government's e-health record system.

Originally switched on in 2012, the system was given a further AU$485 million in funding during the 2015-16 Budget. At the same time, it was rebranded from the "personally controlled e-health record system" (PCEHR) to My Health Record.

Ley said last year that a properly functioning national e-health system could save taxpayers up to AU$2.5 billion per year within a decade's time, with another AU$1.6 billion per year savings for the states.

A 2013 review of the system by former Minister for Health Peter Dutton had suggested the system be made available to opt-out in order to improve signup numbers, and in September 2015 the government responded by introducing legislation that will see e-health accounts automatically assigned to patients.

"I am very conscious that the My Health Record is not going to be everything to everyone," Ley said Monday. "It's a fantastic failsafe record system, which will hopefully over time have links into every clinical system to provide a good snapshot of a person's basic health. But it should never be thought of as a clinical treatment system or patient management software."

With Australians automatically assigned an account, Ley expects that within the "next week or so" 4 million -- 20 percent -- of Australians will have a My Health Record.

"When I came into office I was told that people won't use the system unless there is a critical mass -- well with almost 35,000 Australians signing voluntarily up each week and with early indications that our opt-out trials are running very well -- the critical mass is there," she said.

"Around 2,000 patient summaries were being uploaded by doctors each week. Now, in the week ending July 17, it was over 16,000 uploads."

My Health Record is now also mobile accessible, Ley said.

In addition to being the system operator for the My Health Record, the new agency will also be involved closely with the trial and implementation of Health Care Homes, which forms part of the government's Healthier Medicare package that includes a clinician-led review of all 5,700 items on the Medicare Benefits Schedule.

According to Ley, the AU$21 million Health Care Home will be a "home base" where patients will work with a preferred clinician who is aware of their problems, priorities, and wishes, and is responsible for their care coordination.

"In order to make our Health Care Homes work, we need innovative digital health ideas to help primary health networks and primary health professionals to better coordinate and manage chronic disease. We need these ideas to link into the My Health Record and we need them to engage with the patient, so they can better self-care," she said.

"A connected digital health system will be key to delivering this."

Throughout the lengthy election campaign, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was forced to answer questions on the future of Medicare after opposition leader Bill Shorten accused the Liberal party of intending to outsource the Medicare payments system.

"The Medicare payments system is enormous, obviously, and I believe that we can -- well, it is not a question of belief, there is no doubt that we can -- bring that into the 21st century and do so within government," he said previously.

"But my decision is that this payments system will be upgraded and it will be upgraded within government."

At the time, Turnbull pointed to the creation of the Digital Transformation Office (DTO), which was established early last year when he was communications minister, as proof that he does not wish to head down the outsourcing path.

"It has the culture of a startup but it is within government and its aim is to, within government, transform the delivery of government services, rather than spending enormous amounts of money on big private firms and outside systems integrators and outsourcers," Turnbull said.

"It is a commitment that I am making to all of the elements of Medicare that are currently being provided by government, being provided by government in the future, and that is absolutely consistent with my approach to these issues as demonstrated by my establishment of the DTO."

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