Queensland health digitisation program runs AU$256m over budget

The cost of Queensland's public hospitals moving to an electronic system is blowing out by hundreds of millions of dollars more than budgeted.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor on
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The cost of taking Queensland's public hospitals online is expected to blow out by almost AU$257 million, a probe into the state government's digitising program has found.

Converting paper records to a digital format is intended to speed up the treatment of patients, improve the way medicine is prescribed, and allow clinicians to access patient records anywhere and at any time.

The Queensland government wants to digitise 27 hospitals by mid-2020, but analysis by the state's audit office has found the program will run over budget by AU$256.8 million.

Health Minister Steven Miles says the report [PDF], released on Tuesday, is good news and patients are benefiting because of the reforms.

"Doctors and nurses are going about their work in a safer and higher quality way, and our hospitals are benefiting," he told reporters on Tuesday.

"It is delivering better results for patients."

In 2016, it was forecast that converting hospitals would cost AU$1.2 billion up until 2025, but the audit office says that those figures have since changed.

"This is mainly because it has recognised that many [hospital and health services] do not have the financial capacity to absorb additional costs," the report said.

"[Queensland Health] is forecasting the total cost will increase by an additional AU$256.8 million to complete the implementation for all in-scope hospitals -- an increase of 42 percent."

Digitising the hospitals is being paid for in part by hospital and health services, but an additional AU$112.8 million of government funding is needed to finish the job.

Liberal National Party (LNP) leader Deb Frecklington wants the government to explain why it did not halt the program to resolve technical issues, saying it fast-tracked the work instead.

"This is despite doctors losing confidence, regular system outages, and the head of e-Health Queensland being subject to an ongoing CCC investigation for months," she said.

In May last year, five Queensland hospitals suffered IT problems after trying to protect systems from WannaCry ransomware.

Staff struggled using the integrated electronic medical record system to access historical patient records, with then-Minister for Health Cameron Dick saying staff members were trained to revert to the paper system.

"While this is causing inconvenience to staff, I'm advised that there have been no patient safety issues and our hospitals are operating as usual," Dick said at the time.

Frecklington in March called out the Queensland government for spending an additional AU$250 million on IT across the state than budgeted for, which she said could have instead funded more than 2,300 nurses, 2,400 new police officers, or 3,620 firefighters.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk returned fire, and pinned the bulk of the blame on the LNP.

"In fact, one of the biggest cost blowouts was for the Future of Property and Tenants System started in 2013," she told Parliament at the time.

The premier also criticised Frecklington, who sat on the Budget review committee as the acting treasurer at the time of when the committee elected to sack government IT staff.

Later during the parliamentary session, Digital Technology Minister Mick de Brenni accused the LNP of poorly calculating the AU$250 million figure. He claimed the blowouts were in fact revised budgets for different stages of the projects.

A payroll system introduced in March 2010 resulted in thousands of staffers being overpaid, underpaid, or not paid at all in a debacle that cost taxpayers an estimated AU$1.2 billion.

Six years later, government advisor and non-executive director Monica Bradley said IT was not to blame for the bungle.

"That was an epic failure," Bradley said in 2016.

"It cost the ministry's job; it probably cost the Bligh government at the end of the day. It was a poorly managed project; it was poor all the way through to procurement, through to the politicisation, through pressure over succession governments to make it quick, it then became politicised in the end."

Bradley said the main cause was the project not being designed to solve the problem at hand.

A year earlier, former Queensland Premier Anna Bligh had acknowledged that the Queensland government was at fault for the health payroll system malfunction, and that it was not the failure of hardware or software.

"There was no real clarity of governance. There was one part of the government that was responsible for whole-of-government IT in a shared service provider model, and then we had the line agency Queensland Health," the former premier said.

"Between those two agencies, there was not a single point of accountability. So everybody was in charge, which ultimately meant nobody was."

In April 2016, the Queensland government was ordered to pay IBM Australia's legal fees stemming from the legal proceedings started by Bligh's successor, Campbell Newman, over the troubled health payroll system.

The proceedings started despite Queensland Health and IBM settling in 2011.

With AAP

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