Healthdirect Australia looks through the 'software lens'

Healthdirect Australia has transformed its entire back-end architecture on the basis that software applications will play a crucial role in how it delivers clinical information to the public.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

Healthdirect Australia started out as an initiative set up by the Council of Australian Governments for procurement in 2006. But five years down the track as the world began to move online for advice, it forced Healthdirect to change its strategy from being a telephony based contact centre to a multichannel information service provider.

Speaking at the Gartner Application Architecture, Development and Integration Summit in Sydney on Tuesday, Bruce Haefele, Healthdirect Australia chief architect, said it was important for the organisation to move into offering digital services across all of its brands, including Pregnancy Birth and Baby, after hours GP helpline, mindhealthconnect, and National Health Services Directory.

"Early on we realised we needed to build something that was going to allow us to sustain our level of investment and the ability to allow the public to access these services over the coming years because we see it as just the first part of the puzzle," he said. "Once we've got the information there we can start extending our value up into service provision. So it was important for us to get it right."

Haefele said the approach the organisation took from the get-go on making decisions was to look at everything through a "software lens" based on the knowledge that software applications was going to play a crucial role for the business going forward.

"We looked at the lens from two different aspects. The traditional lens that focuses and defocuses, and to us that lens is our API infrastructure where it focuses on information coming into our environment or going out, and defocuses that information so it allows us to spread it around, deconstruct it, and add value to different parts of our organisation," he said.

"We also see the lens in terms of a camera lens, where I can buy my camera body and have a range of interchangeable lenses to put in front. We don't live in an environment where we can afford to be isolated, we have to work into a network of other providers and look at what opportunities there are to connect ourselves to them."

As a result, Healthdirect built its new platform around three key building blocks: An interoperability framework, a continuous delivery framework, and a new content publishing platform.

However, Haefele said, the organisation learnt the hard way of adopting a new architecture, noting there was not a lot of information available around how the company should approach the revamp.

"Although there was not an overwhelming amount of properties we were managing, moving from a team of 15 to 150 people presents a lot of challenges, such as getting the right people, getting them into the right projects, there were no processes or software development processes," he said.

"People think it's ideal that we can start in environment where it's complete green fields but it's hard. There is absolutely nothing you can depend on; you can try to adopt best practices out of the industry but the industry's best practice and your best practice are two different things. So we learnt a lot of things the hard way."

Haefele added the entire operation would not have been possible if the executive support was not there, advising it's important for any business entering into an IT overhaul to secure executive support. "We had to inform the executives to ensure the funding was available, but we also informed them that things were likely to go wrong too."

But the results of configuring an automated API infrastructure has paid off, Haefele said, highlighting the organisation is now able to deploy applications multiple times a day. Previously the organisation was only able to deploy 20 new applications per month, but now it's about deploy 2,000 per month a deployment cycle times have been reduced to 15 minutes.

Other successful results Healthdirect has seen is that the publishing cycle of content is so fast it now takes less than a minute to upload approved clinical information.

"We now know how long things are going to take because we've tested the process from dev to production. Our development is now faster and cheaper," he said.

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