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Digital health decisions must be strategic

Digital health decisions must be strategic

Paul Lupo
St.LukesHealth CEO 

The State Government’s commitment to upgrading the health department’s digital health systems in the recently delivered budget should be commended.

As a new premier and health minister, Jeremy Rockliff must have had moments leading up to budget day where he wondered whether announcing $150 million health IT upgrade would have as much wow factor in the community as, say, announcing $150 million to upgrade some hospital wards, buying some new medical equipment, or employing more doctors, nurses, paramedics or allied health professionals.

Without doubt, any of those perpetual health shopping list items are arguably more likely to generate bigger headlines in news cycles where announcements about jobs and bricks and mortar investment tend to result in more clicks.

However less exciting it may be, making sure the health department can click is vital.

It’s a simple fact that digital systems underpin pretty much everything we do, whether it’s running a business, a club, or a multi-layered health system with more than 15,000 employees, four major hospitals, an ambulance service and a public health agency.

And if the digital infrastructure that is supposed to support those things doesn’t keep pace or isn’t fit-for-purpose, it leads very quickly to inefficiencies – and that is something any organisation would rather avoid, particularly the one charged with providing acute and emergency medical care to more than half a million people.

Take a situation where a patient who lives in Northern Tasmania recently had surgery at the Royal Hobart Hospital and is at an appointment with a private specialist in Launceston for a different condition. The specialist wants to prescribe a particular type of medication, but the patient thinks they may have had a bad reaction to that type of medication while in hospital, although they’re not completely sure it’s the same one.

With a new statewide patient record viewer connecting all public and private health providers, as being promised by the State Government, the specialist only needs to click the patient’s record to check, resolving the situation in seconds. Without such a system, the specialist needs to carve out time, potentially delaying other patients, to make calls or send emails requesting the relevant medical information.

In the meantime, the patient’s treatment is delayed, maybe to the point they’ll need to wait to get another appointment, which again comes at the expense of another patient trying to see the same specialist. 

Multiply the scenario by hundreds of patients in a similar situation, and it’s easy to see how bogged down a health system can become just trying to manage relatively minor day-to-day administrative processes. The life-and-death examples of these stall points don’t bear thinking about, but it doesn’t take a medical degree to believe they must occur, particularly in acute care or paramedicine situations.

Digital infrastructure that allows better communication between hospitals, general practitioners, community health providers, allied health services and specialists is a fundamentally important step to increasing health system efficiency.

With increased efficiency comes the ability for different parts of what is a complex health system to work together better. That, in turn, increases the ability for effective collaboration, and ultimately, leads to better patient outcomes.

While a patient may not necessarily be aware of it, their health and the medical care they are provided can often be dictated by just how well the system as a whole works to support them and the people they are going to for care.

We know the public health system struggles to meet demand. We know it is still dealing with the fallout from a global pandemic, and we know as a community we are getting older and sicker. Similarly, we know that simply throwing more and more money at the health budget and hoping it has some miraculous effect on acute medical pressures and surgical waiting lists isn’t working.

Making a targeted investment in the infrastructure that essentially dictates how our health system can even start delivering care, not to mention potential game changers in wider use of telehealth to better treat our far-flung population, is a smart play, and one for which the State Government should be congratulated for.

It is now up to the Government to get this spend right. With almost half a billion allocated for a 10-year digital health strategy, these first steps are critical and will define how effective our system is for a generation. For all of our sakes, the decisions and implementation around digital health must be strategic, or the health of the entire state will continue suffer under the strain of greater demand.