By: Karen Dearne
LARGE-SCALE production pilots of a nationwide e-health system will start this year, with the National E-Health Transition Authority set the task of making this happen as quickly as possible.
NEHTA chief executive Peter Fleming has been given a mandate to create a uniform IT infrastructure, starting with an incremental build-out of existing clinical and communication platforms.
Federal and state government agreement on the urgent need for healthcare safety and efficiency gains - detailed in several recent reports - signals an end to years of under-investment and fragmentation as parties pursued their own technology agendas.
"Legislative changes are needed, but from a technical perspective we aim to be in a position this year to run some pilots," Mr Fleming said.
"We're in very close dialogue with a number of groups about trials of electronic medication management and hospital discharge summaries."
Late last year, the Council of Australian Governments approved $218 million in funds to extend NEHTA's operations.
Mr Fleming said the organisation was working with software vendors to assess their capabilities and move towards the goal.
Medical Software Industry Association president Vincent McCauley said members were "hopeful this is the year things happen".
"That, of course, remains to be seen, but we're keeping our fingers crossed," Dr McCauley said.
The association is advertising for a part-time general manager in response to increased industry involvement in consultations over national projects.
IBA Health Group chief executive Gary Cohen said there had been a fundamental shift in attitudes, and "not many in healthcare are interested in trying to preserve their own patch" any more. "People have realised that we have to do things differently, and we need a more national approach to healthcare delivery," he said.
Mr Cohen said the Rudd Government should be "emboldened" and develop a vision of investing in healthcare IT infrastructure. "There should be a central funding body that's responsible for allocating funds for infrastructure," he said.
"People within state health departments are locked into a particular environment - really, only the federal government has the capacity to make those big changes," Mr Cohen said.
Helen Hopkins, outgoing executive director of the Consumers Health Forum, said there was more recognition among health professionals and bureaucrats that people were important stakeholders.
"Consumers want access to their health information when and where they need it, so we're continuing to push for a full e-health record," she said.
"If that's going to take some time, they want some easier things first, such as their hospital discharge information to be sent to their GPs," she said.