E-health saving lives in Queensland: CSIRO

The use of e-health data mining projects by CSIRO has brought down the rate of mortality in Queensland, according to the organisation's CEO.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The e-health initiative being undertaken by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is already saving lives, according to the chief executive, who said a joint scheme with Queensland Health to create the Australian e-Health Research Centre has been so successful that the mortality rate has decreased.

"We've already shown very conclusive evidence of improved mortality through Queensland hospitals as a result of that data mining and feedback to them that enabled them to improve their processes," said Larry Marshall, CEO of CSIRO, at Telstra's 2015 Australian Digital Summit in Sydney on Monday.

"Many, many people are alive today as a result of those improvements."

The joint project uses a Patient Admission Prediction Tool (PAPT) to collect and analyse hospital data to forecast numbers of patients in emergency, and therefore predict how many staff members and resources will be required for the future.

Marshall also pointed towards aged care as a potential usage for e-health, with Australia's ageing population needing modernised care facilities that take advantage of technology and data mining.

"Aged care, which is going to be a big issue in Asia as it is in this country -- e-medicine enables new types of censors to be placed around aged-care facilities that enable monitoring of the people in that facility without interfering in any way, shape, or form with what they do every day," he said.

Marshall said, however, that e-health hasn't been a successful initiative in any of Australia's other states or territories thus far thanks to a lack of cooperation from organisations.

"We haven't had that much success in e-health outside of Queensland -- Queensland's been a remarkable state for us, they're the first place in the country to give us access to their state health database," he said.

While CSIRO is working alongside the Queensland government, it has not made use of the federal government's e-health record system.

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

The most recent funding injection will improve the billion-dollar system by updating it with various recommendations from GPs who have used the system in its current state.

According to Minister for Health Sussan Ley, less than one in 10 Australians have signed up for the service so far.

"In this modern world, where technology makes information sharing boundless, there's no excuse for Australia not to have a functioning national e-health system," Ley said.

"Doctors have indicated that they're much more likely to use the system if all their patients have a record. We also need full coverage if we're to cut down on inefficiencies created by not having one seamless records system, such as double ups with testing, prescriptions, and other procedures."

Ley said 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 that the system be made opt-out in order to improve signup numbers. In September this year, the government responded by introducing legislation that will see e-health accounts automatically assigned to patients. The government will begin trialling these opt-out accounts, with a nationwide rollout planned should the trials be successful.

CSIRO's digital productivity arm was recently merged with National ICT Australia (NICTA), with the government saying in August that the combined force will "supercharge" Australia's technological advancements.

The merged entity, announced in a joint statement by then-Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull and former Minister for Industry and Science Ian Macfarlane, is named "Data61".

"Having a single national organisation will enable Data61 to produce focused research that will deliver strong economic returns and ensure that Australia remains at the forefront of digital innovation," the now-prime minister said at the time.

The CSIRO chief executive on Monday said that his decision to lead CSIRO was partially formed by his determination to provide funding for NICTA to continue its work.

"When I came into CSIRO, one of my conditions for coming back and running this amazing organisation was to be allowed to save NICTA," Marshall said.

"It's a very unique and really important piece of data science capability that I think otherwise would have gone away if we hadn't put our arms around it. So we've created this new group by combining NICTA with the CSIRO digital group; we call it Data61 -- 61 for the country code for Australia.

"It's just over 1,000 data scientists; it's arguably one of the largest groups of data scientists in the world, and it's focused 100 percent on helping Australia navigate through digital disruption."

Both NICTA and CSIRO have been the victims of government budget slashes for the past few years: Last year, CSIRO announced that it would be axing more than 500 jobs after the government's 2014-15 Budget cut AU$111.4 million in funding to the research organisation.

CSIRO had prior to this announced that it would cut 300 full-time jobs after receiving AU$32.3 million in funding in the 2013-14 Budget purely to make redundancies.

"These funding cuts to CSIRO are short-sighted and destructive," CSIRO's staff association president Dr Michael Borgas said at the time. "They will do lasting harm to CSIRO and the capacity to deliver new inventions and crucial research for the next generation of Australians.

"These cuts to public funding of CSIRO could not come at a worse time. These budget cuts will mean more science workers will lose their jobs and more important research will not be done. CSIRO management might be faced with the terrible prospect of getting out of some areas of research altogether."

NICTA faced similar issues, with the Coalition in September 2013 cutting AU$42 million in funding in an effort to improve the Budget bottom line by AU$6 billion and reduce government debt by AU$16 billion.

In February last year, NICTA was forced to axe 30 research jobs in its Victorian office after similar funding cuts from the state government.

The following May, however, Australia's incumbent telecommunications carrier Telstra stepped in to provide millions of dollars in funding to NICTA over a five-year period, with research partnerships also arranged between the organisation and the University of Technology Sydney, Deakin University, and the George Institute.

The Department of Defence also announced an investment of AU$14.2 million in seven Australian organisations to develop new defence technologies, including CSIRO, in September.

Some of the proposals the winning organisations put forward included miniaturised wide-band, low-noise radio frequency antennas; mobile X-ray imagers for detecting explosive devices; technology to securely transmit 3D geospatial data to ships at sea; and a low-cost, high-G centrifuge for use in pilot training simulators.

CSIRO is due to publish its report on mortality rates in Queensland hospitals soon.

Updated on October 28, 10.35am AEST: This article originally stated that CSIRO had made use of the government's My Health Record data, but this is not the case.

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