Healthcare chiefs bemoan Australian medical sector remaining stuck on paper

They describe how many general practitioners still use paper records -- and even fax.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

A panel of healthcare professionals have underscored there is still room to develop and improve the way health services are delivered in Australia, with the belief that technology has a crucial role to play.

Bendigo Health CEO Peter Faulkner labelled Australia's healthcare sector as "fragmented", particularly in how technology investments are made.

"Health services are very good at investing in clinical technology but are not so committed in the investment of information technology," he said, speaking during a virtual event on Thursday.

"It does give rise to what I call 'digital inequity' and, in some instances, digital poverty within health systems and services, and certainly across communities.

"It's also a reflection of the complexity of the service delivery system in Australia, with the Commonwealth, states, and territories all responsible for funding and operating different components of the health system. But also, the divide between public and private services within the system. It is a complex environment in that regard."

Read more: The ADHA wants to end the use of fax machines in Australian healthcare  

Medibank boss Craig Drummond agreed, saying how unlike other sectors, such as banking, the healthcare industry are laggards when it comes to investing in technology aimed to improve customer experience.

"Broadly adopted technology has been less patient or consumer-centric … I think we're at a very immature stage in healthcare and a lot of work needs to be done," he said.

The panel's conversation also turned to the federal government's controversial My Health Record.

Faulkner acknowledged that while the Commonwealth has attempted to bring about what he referred to as a "unifying digital platform" through My Health Record, it also has shortfalls.

"It relies on providers to be able to generate digital content and to load that content into the national record," he explained.

"From a health services perspective, this means we need to capture the information digitally in an electronic health record, or if you are using paper records, you need to be able to scan and upload it. I know of independent specialists in 2020 who continue to operate their entire clinical practice on paper.

"While we have a digital strategy across Australia, I don't think we have a coherent investment program that incentivises and support practitioners across the country to invest in those fundamental interoperative platforms."

Like Faulkner, City of Sydney councillor and general practitioner Kerryn Phelps described how she has witnessed first-hand a concerning number of medical practitioners who are still not equipped with some of the most basic technologies.

"A lot of practitioners are not even on computers at the moment and don't have computer records … they're not going to be able to upload files, even by scanning. We get a lot of faxes and hardcopy mail. We're now getting more and more emails," she said.

"The hospitals are getting much better at sending summary discharges to GPs that we can automatically upload. If you're computerised, you can get pathology record directly uploaded … we can see digital images with MRI, CT scans, ultra-sounds, x-rays."

Phelps' main concern about My Health Record, however, remains to be around privacy, and who can access the data on the platform.

"We need the ethical and privacy framework very much in place on the outset, and I still have concerns … because there are too many ways of accessing that record by various entities without the patient's permission or knowledge," she said.

See also: My Health Record: Canberra is still missing the point

Similar privacy concerns have been previously shared about the federal government's online medical file, particularly around its overly broad access for law enforcement and the retention of data even when a health record was cancelled.

As of July 2020, there are just over 22.8 million records and more than 70 million clinical documents on My Health Record.

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