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Australia’s National Digital Health Strategy promotes interoperable and secure communication

An announcement by the Australian Digital Health Agency highlighted on Australia’s National Digital Health Strategy and how it will be able to solve problems concerning interoperability and secure communication. This strategy will also end dependence on fax machines and paper-based correspondence.

In order to address the issue of interoperability and secured communication among healthcare providers, professionals and patients and support the uptake of digital health services, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Health Council approved Australia’s National Digital Health Strategy. They described the strategy as Safe, Seamless and Secure.

The urgency to do so was brought about by an incident with a fax machine. Outdated and unsecure fax machines are still being used to share patient information between healthcare providers. It has become a source of frustration for healthcare providers. Plus, it can cause harm to a patient.

In May 2018, a coroner’s report revealed that a Hodgkin’s lymphoma patient died alone because his medical test results were faxed to the wrong number. Thus, his haematologist did not receive the vital information that could have saved his life.

A key priority of the strategy is empowering healthcare providers to communicate with other professionals and their patients via secure digital channels thereby ending dependence on fax machines and paper-based correspondence.

On 6 June 2018, a secure messaging industry collaboration workshop was attended by key industry participants where they agreed to adopt the tools, processes, and standards that have been demonstrated to solve the interoperability problems across secure messaging and clinical information systems.

The meeting was co-chaired by Medical Software Industry Association (MSIA) President Emma Hossack, Australian Digital Health Agency Chief Operating Officer Ms Bettina McMahon, and Dr Nathan Pinskier, Chair of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) Expert Committee for eHealth and Practice Systems, and Chair of the Australian Digital Health Agency’s Secure Messaging Program Steering Group.

Ms Hossack confirmed that the industry is committed to advancing interoperability in secure messaging and across the health sector.

She said, “Health information is stored in diverse health software and frequently needs to be shared. Without interoperability, this information may need to be scanned and faxed or even posted. Not only can this be dangerous but also highly inefficient.”

Telstra Health leads a consortium that tests the delivery of discharge summaries from Royal Melbourne Hospital to a number of general practitioners. Other participants in this project are CorePlus, Genie Solutions, Global Health, HealthLink, and Zedmed.

Telstra Health Head of Strategy and Policy Dr Phuong Pham explained that being able to connect and securely share information is necessary to support the safety, quality, and efficiency of the health system.

Healthlink leads another consortium tasked to test the delivery of referrals from a range of general practitioners to specialists. Participants in this work are MedicalDirector, Best Practice Software, Genie Solutions, Global Health, and Telstra Health.

HealthLink CEO Tom Bowden said, “The ability to select any practice from a federated directory search will be a major step forward for eHealth across Australia.”

Both consortia are finalising a federated search capability wherein a single search will identify Australian healthcare providers, providing convenience and transparency for clinicians looking up other clinicians.

The projects have also been extended to include allied health practitioners and electronic medical record (EMR) products used in that domain.

Dr Pinskier shared, “In late 2016, Agency CEO Tim Kelsey visited my practice.  He offered me the opportunity to become involved with a new and invigorated secure messaging program. Clinicians have been understandably frustrated with the ongoing delays and lack of progress towards achieving truly interoperable, easy to use and highly available secure messaging in the healthcare sector.”

Ms McMahon said that partnering with the rest of the industry and their customers is the key to solving the interoperability issues.

She explained, “Secure messaging systems and standards have been in place for many years, but as a country, we’ve struggled to implement at a national scale. It has taken time to co-produce a workable solution with industry that meets the expectations of the clinical community.”

She added, “We started this project 18 months ago. But to adopt a true co-production process takes this long, and ultimately, has allowed us to reach consensus about how we will scale digital communication.”

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