The National E-Health Transition Authority (NEHTA), the organisation charged with steering Australia's efforts to unify patient records across the nation's healthcare providers, has asked for patience in the face of growing criticism of its progress.
Gil Carter, general manager of authentication at NEHTA, told attendees at the CeBIT's e-government Forum today that critics should consider the "wicked problems trying to be solved" when reading any adverse press about its efforts.
It is widely recognised that healthcare provision in Australia desperately needs a system that connects the disparate silos of paper- and electronic-based health record systems isolated within healthcare institutions in Australia. A unified electronic patient record, one which can be transferred between healthcare institutions, is the "glow on the horizon" for e-health, Carter said.
Carter said NEHTA, funded by both Federal and State governments, has contrary to media reports made some considerable progress on most of the key areas required to build such a connected health system.
Development of unique identifiers for healthcare patients has been allocated to Medicare as of December 2007, he said. NEHTA has also built a comprehensive framework for the development of "premium grade" digital certificates to ensure that records can be transferred securely, and negotiated for healthcare system developers to gain free access to the SNOMED CT standard for clinical terminology to ensure all institutions are "speaking the same language".
"We've done the strategy, the documentation, the standards and procedures," Carter said. "The focus of the next 12 months will be consultation and implementation."
Any lack of progress, Carter told ZDNet.com.au, was a reflection of "the complexity of healthcare".
"Look at the trouble the NHS (UK's National Health Service) has had — and they have only one health jurisdiction, only one government to look after," Carter said. "NEHTA has to converse with nine different health departments, and the Commonwealth. It's a long journey and it won't happen quickly. We are talking about a five- or 10-year transition."
Carter said the groundwork NEHTA is doing will "enable a rapid return" once a system is implemented, as all the necessary safeguards to ensure it will be effective for both clinicians and patients will have been addressed.
Interestingly, Carter applauded the entrance of Microsoft and Google into the e-health market.
Representatives from traditional healthcare ICT vendors, such as ASX-listed IBA Health, have previously expressed concern that the entrance of these giants of the software world into e-health as "opportunistic" and more concerned with selling licences than saving lives.
But Carter said the healthcare industry will benefit from Microsoft and Google's "intellectual prowess".
"Companies of this ilk are likely to disrupt the market," he said. "I think it is useful to have disruption occur."