The Federal Government's e-health plan is not about saving taxpayer money but about using health funding more efficiently, a senior public servant has told Senate Estimates this week.
In response to a question from Labor Senator Mark Furner on what potential savings the government's $466.7 million investment in e-health programs could deliver for the taxpayer, Jane Halton, secretary for the Department of Health and Ageing, said that any savings made would ultimately be spent elsewhere in the health system.
"The thing I know about health is there is no such thing as a saving because someone else will come along and spend the money. It is like there is no such thing as an empty hospital bed. What it enables you to do though is to spend the money that you do have more wisely and more efficiently," Halton told the hearing.
"In other words, we can use the dollar that we have in the health system to deliver more services, to deliver better quality of care and therefore to improve outcomes," she added. "The Department of Finance will find that in evidence and then I will be on the fatwa list for not delivering a saving."
The benefits for e-health, Halton said, would be to reduce medical errors and prevent deaths and duplication of testing for patients through the availability of reliable information contained on e-health records.
In the last Senate Estimates hearings in June, it was revealed that just three software vendors had signed up to test software that would use individual health identifiers (IHIs). First assistant secretary for the Primary and Ambulatory Care Division within the department Megan Morris revealed this week that of the 80 software developers who have requested a developer kit to create software for the system, just 14 have actually signed a developer's agreement with Medicare.
Morris could not state the reasons behind the low sign-up rate, but revealed that from March next year, the department expects that software vendors will be able to test their e-health products within independent testing labs to ensure they work correctly with the individual health identifiers and "support patients' safety".
Morris said that 23.5 million individual health identifiers have been assigned to individuals since the legislation allowing their creation passed at the end of June this year. There had also been 390,000 healthcare professionals assigned with identifiers. Only two organisations had received an identifier: one from the ACT and one from Tasmanian.
Interest in e-health was growing in the community, according to Halton, who highlighted that some people have been keen to know more about their own IHI.
"At the risk of using the anecdote to prove the point, I should tell you a very short story about personally being in a health facility recently, not professionally, and standing behind someone in a queue to pay a rather large amount of money as it happens for something, and the person in front of me said ... 'Would you like my unique health identifier?'," Halton said.
"And the answer was, 'Actually our software is not yet enabled'," she added. "The receptionist in this place knew that it was coming and they had not yet got the software, and two, that someone — it would only be in Canberra — actually had already gone and got their unique health identifier. This was a dialogue of two people who actually knew what they were talking about and one said, 'I would like to use it', and the other said, 'You will be able to shortly'."