The last bastion

The IT industry is clamouring to take advantage of the huge opportunities offered by digitising Australia’s ailing healthcare industry. But will the strategy work?

Australia's health industry is in crisis. Our population is ageing, demanding more of our health system. Meanwhile, our supply of skilled medical professionals is being stretched to capacity - with doctors and nurses working overtime to meet the demand. It's the kind of problems that IT systems - and the business process improvements that comes with them - are usually able to resolve.

But healthcare is an industry that has under-invested in IT. It is, according to the CIO of one hospital, "the last bastion" of Australian industry that has all but skipped out on the automating and digitising forces of the IT economy.

Faced with limited budgets and a huge list of spending priorities, its IT systems have historically been neglected.

"It's still a paper-based, manual industry that is yet to automate, and at the same time, it's an industry with significant staff shortages," Dr David Dembo, a former clinician who now runs Microsoft's healthcare team in Australia, said. "The supply of nursing and other clinical staff is dire."

"IT in healthcare is very antiquated, even more than people realise," director of technology research company S2 Intelligence, Bruce McCabe, said. "It suffers, more so than any other sector, from an underinvestment in IT."

This underinvestment impacts the industry on several fronts. It is felt on the frontline by clinicians - many spend between 50 and 60 per cent of their time doing paperwork, rather than in front of patients. This represents, at Government funding level, a waste of very valuable resources.

IBA is Australia's largest producer of e-Health solutions. Group communications director, Greg King, said there's an enormous amount of waste in the system. Activities are often duplicated - patients are asked to answer the same questions on multiple forms. Or they are asked to do three blood tests in a matter of days, as information on a previous blood test isn't readily available to the next clinician in line. Worse still, it leaves clinicians with inadequate information about patients. Patients often neglect to tell clinicians about allergies, medications they are already taking, and other key information that would help the clinician make the best choices.

"Many healthcare decisions are not being made with the full picture available to the practitioner at the point of care," Dembo said. "Decisions are being made on the best information available, which when it comes to health, is not good enough. The error rates in our health system - at around 4.6 per cent - are unacceptably high."

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