Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Fleming heads medical e-data project

By Karen Dearne

AUSTRALIA's new e-health boss, Peter Fleming, has a solid technology background and a long-held vision for electronic reform of the health sector.

Mr Fleming, appointed chief executive of the National E-Health Transition Authority yesterday, said he intended to deliver a system that would have "major benefits for the entire nation".

Most recently National Australia Bank's technology and business integration general manager, Mr Fleming previously spent five years as chief information officer of health group Mayne, with oversight of its pharmaceutical business.

"In my time in Mayne we saw the real benefits of being able to move transactions electronically," he said.

"It was a vision that we always thought - once it could be done at a national level - would provide tremendous benefits in removing duplication and also in enhanced patient care."

Mr Fleming replaces Andrew Howard, who has been acting chief executive since the sudden departure of former chief Ian Reinecke in April. Dr Reinecke's resignation followed criticism of NEHTA's structure and lack of consultation with outside stakeholders, contained in a review by Boston Consulting late last year.

The shakeup led to new blood on the board, including the appointment of Australian Securities and Exchange chairman David Gonski as chairman.

Mr Gonski yesterday announced Mr Fleming's appointment, saying the board would work with him to "meet the challenges of the national health agenda".

Although Mr Fleming is not well known in e-health circles, it is understood he was chosen for his experience in large commercial projects.

He started his career at Coles-Myer, where he spent 17 years in the IT department before moving to Colonial Group for seven years and rising to chief information officer.

At Colonial, Mr Fleming was involved in installing a new banking system for the State Bank of NSW. Aushealthit blogger David More said Mr Fleming's biggest challenge would be "coming seriously to grips with a health sector that is severely frustrated by the lack of progress" in e-health.

"He should be stepping back and thinking reflectively about how the authority should interact with the rest of the sector, after its deep disconnect," Dr More said.

"It will be incredibly difficult to attract the levels of investment NEHTA seems to be contemplating without a demonstrable cultural change and improved relations with other stakeholders."

Dr More also warned that the corporate command culture may not sit well with the "professional democracy" of healthcare.

"A difficult implementation in a commercial organisation where the CEO can just tell people to do stuff is very different from this situation," he said.

Meanwhile, NEHTA's board and the Council of Australian Governments are awaiting a comprehensive national e-health strategy being developed by Deloitte. The report is due in a matter of weeks.

Mr Fleming said it would be premature to talk about the strategy, as he had yet to read the draft documents and meet the consultants.

"I need to spend some time understanding the plans and the work done to date, but I really want to work with the team to build a solid action plan for delivery," he said.

"That will obviously mean a huge amount of work with all of the key stakeholders to ensure a common approach." Mr Fleming said he would "certainly be very keen" to speak to the health IT industry and clinicians.

"I'll be looking at the long-term strategy and the best way to do that," he said. "It's an exciting challenge, and the potential benefits for the nation are part of the attraction."

Mr Fleming does not take up his new post until September 29, but he hopes to attend some of the e-health sessions taking place in Melbourne this week.

Michael Legg, president of the Health Informatics Society of Australia - which is holding its annual conference this week - congratulated Mr Fleming.

"We look forward to working closely with him to put in place the infrastructure Australia needs to address the critical shortage in health services that we're going to have," Mr Legg said.