Political will is holding back digital health: Experts

Far from being a technology problem, digital health initiatives are being held back by a lack of incentive and government backing, a panel of health experts has said.

Imagine you have the technology platform, the tools, and the know-how to help move forward an industry that is about to have its costs increase imminently, but despite the improvements your scheme would bring, no one can or wants to step forward and make it happen.

Welcome to the digitisation of health care in Australia.

Despite more than AU$1.1 billion being spent on the Personally Controlled E-Health Record (PCEHR) project by governments of different political persuasions, an electronic record is no closer to being fully integrated into the health system.

"The PCEHR, I don't think we are going to be in a place to see that seamlessly integrated in the next decade, unless a miraculous change happens in people's attitudes," Toby Hall, Group CEO of St Vincent's Health Australia, told attendees of the Connect Expo Future Health Summit on Tuesday.

Hall said it isn't technology holding back its utilisation, but rather that hospitals would only move when health services and GPs are using the PCEHR.

"We've actually got to win the hearts and minds of people and say: 'This is a better way forward.' That's not going to happen until people see the benefit for them in that," he said.

"You're not talking amazingly complex technology; you're talking an issue which is actually more to do with will.

"We've got the platforms there. People aren't willing to use them."

Under the former Labor federal government, AU$1 billion was spent creating the PCEHR, with the current Coalition government allocating AU$140 million to keep the project going until it implements the recommendations of a review into the project.

One of the authors of that review, executive director of UnitingCare Health Richard Royle, said Australia is behind the eight ball compared to other Western nations, and a lack of interoperability and communication is holding back digital health programs.

"We have a platform that we can roll out reasonably quickly with some political will," he said.

"A lot of the basic stuff could be far better done in an integrated way with sharing of data."

The experts agreed that one way to ensure health professionals would not adopt a technology-based solution is to approach it as a technology project.

"Number one piece of evidence that comes out is: Unless this is driven and engaged by clinicians, then it won't be successful," Donna Markham, advisor to the chief executive affairs at Monash Health, said.

"This is not an IT project; it's a clinician-driven project with a really strong change management project wrapped around it.

"You do need to approach it, rather than a project, that it is a change journey."

More than one expert said that one factor missing from the digital health debate is a push towards digital from governments at all levels.

"Until there is political will ... there won't be a groundswell of support," Lyn Davies, managing director at Tunstall Healthcare, told the audience. "It's not about the technology; it's about the service that sits behind it.

"I don't think industries who are developing products and services now, thinking that they are going to sell a widget, are going to be successful. It has to be a whole solution service that is going to have to be developed over time."

Davies said that governments would soon need to address the slow technology uptake in the health sector in order to reduce costs as the baby boomers continue to age.

"Medicare will have to start looking at this, because the system is already exploding with cost," she said.