E-health more lost than Atlantis

We all love the idea of e-health, but if the Opposition has its way, it will never happen.
Written by Suzanne Tindal, Contributor on

We all love the idea of e-health — the thought of medical consultations without the inevitable, "but I already said that to ten other people, and what do you mean you need my x-rays?" — but if the Opposition is right, it may never happen.

Yesterday, Liberal Senator Sue Boyce let fly with a fiery speech (health blogger David More has published a copy on his site) detailing the long history of e-health efforts in the nation, which started well before the current government came into power, and how little we now have to show for it.

It seems that both sides of government would equally like to have a functioning system to exchange medical information, but no matter how much they huff and puff, there are still so many obstacles that it feels like trying to empty a lake with a leaky bucket.

Boyce's speech was saturated with her frustration at the lack of progress with the personally controlled electronic health records, but some of her choicest statements were saved for the National E-Health Transition Authority's opaque communications style.

She called the authority a "stream of consciousness cult that believes in the power of peyote", quoting responses from the authority such as "enabling seamless handovers of care" and "streamlining multi-disciplinary care management".

She believed that some technophiles were deliberately obscure in their communications to evade scrutiny — and she may be right.

"Be very, very frightened, for somebody is about to put their hand in your pocket, move you to another planet or, at the very least, snow you while boring you to death on the journey," she said of those spouting technical, ambiguous phrases.

For all the words, she wasn't impressed with what was actually happening. While the government and NEHTA believe that the personal health records project is on track for its 2012 deadline, Boyce isn't convinced that take up will be high, and she outlined multiple issues with the solution as it stood.

She said it was time to take a pause and really think about the state of e-health in Australia.

Yet, although her speech very accurately highlighted the problems of e-health, it had few answers. I'm not certain that a pause will actually achieve anything. I almost feel that e-health is a herculean task that will never be completed, and will be a fly in the ointment for any government.

After all, think on former Shadow Health Minister Peter Dutton's words back in 2009, that he was willing to give bi-partisan support for e-health as long as there was drive and vision.

And Health Minister Nicola Roxon has delivered on vision, but is it a pie in the sky? Will it ever be implemented and used on a broad scale?

"It would seem E-Health is an orphan child that everyone wants but no one wants to look after," said Boyce. I agree. But it's not just true for the government; it's also true for us — the consumer — and for health professionals.

Do we want to be able to share medical information? Do we want a more efficient, information-based health system? If so, what compromises are we willing to make to get it? Because we, too, need to be ready to take that orphan to the bosom. And it won't be a perfect child. Just the best that we can make it.

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