PCEHR pulls off a billion-dollar comeback

It has taken four years and over $1 billion but one of Australia’s biggest taxpayer-funded failures has almost been cured, according to the senior doctor leading the project.

The Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record (PCEHR) initiative is designed to be the foundation on which Australia’s future healthcare system will be built.

At its most basic it is designed to provide every Australian who wants it with a centralised medical record that can be accessed by doctors and hospitals across the nation, from general practitioners to emergency rooms.

National e-health transition authority (NEHTA) chairman and former president of the Australian Medical Association, Steve Hambleton , told The Australian Financial Review the project had been treading water for several months while the government considered its response to a review of the troubled project that was commissioned in November 2013.

But he also insisted the ­much-criticised project, which has burned through more than $1 billion since it was announced in 2010, has bounced back and is ready pending the belated government go-ahead.

The spokesman for Health Minister Peter Dutton said previous implementations were rushed and chaotic and that it was determined to take its time and not make the same mistakes.

Doctors all but abandoned the system amid claims it was hard to use, would take too much time and had incomplete medical records. “Meaningful clinical use hasn’t taken off . . . but people often don’t have visibility of the fact that NEHTA had to set up the standards that underpin the system," he said.

The PCEHR was a Labor project designed to be completed for ­$467 million by mid-2012, as part of efforts to cut billions of dollars in health spending by helping people manage their own health.

The system is also meant to save lives by boosting the visibility doctors have of patients and their medicine – a digital solution to the fog of war that envelops our medical histories.

Four years later the project has almost 2 million records. But success is less about the membership base and everything to do with how often they use the system.

As of November, the system records just 10,000 interactions per week – a ­relative small number that Dr Hambleton acknowledges must be improved by adding more doctors and patients to the system. “After the federal ­election NEHTA quite rightly stopped and said it needed to wait for the eight [state and federal] governments to give clear directions how much further to proceed," he said.

“When you have big systems like this it does take time; we’ve had a change of government. Elections always delay things and we’ve got three state governments set to go to an election."

Dr Hambleton said it was vital for the PCEHR to become an opt-out system that patients would automatically receive unless they specifically requested otherwise.

But this is a move that civil libertarians and some consumer groups are extremely wary of. They worry that patients with mental health and other issues may not get a chance to make a conscious decision.

Other critics warn any centralised medical database would become a treasure trove for hackers, and its ease of access by doctors could also lead to abuse – a claim NEHTA strenuously denies.

NEHTA chief executive Peter ­Fleming said moving to an opt-out ­system would cost substantial amounts of money because education campaigns and extra technology including more data centre capacity would be required. “If the government makes the decision to go opt-out then you’ll see pretty well 100 per cent adoption by consumers," he said.

The Australian Financial Review

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