This article suggests that the National E-Health Transition Authority (NEHTA) has lost its rationale and reason for being, if, indeed, it ever had it. I accept that this is a fairly large call, so how do I justify it?
The premise on which NEHTA is based is that the provision of relevant, timely and accurate information needed by those who deliver and manage patient care will improve patient safety and reduce clinical accidents, thereby allowing us all to live happier, longer and more productive lives.
NEHTA is the offspring of a Boston Consulting Group Report which was delivered to the Australian Health Information Council (AHIC) and Health Ministers in April 2004. This report recommended, among other things, that an entity (that subsequently became NEHTA) be established and that its focus be on development of e-health connectivity and standards at a National level. It also recommended work to advance Electronic Health Records and Clinical Information Systems but this suggestion was not followed up if the funding allocations from COAG are to be believed (see below).
Later in 2004 NEHTA was established with Dr Ian Reinecke as its CEO. As at June 2006 the organisation has more than thirty staff scattered across offices in a number of States befitting its role as a cross-jurisdictional entity. A little under twelve months ago NEHTA was incorporated as NEHTA Ltd with its board being made up of each of the jurisdictional Health Department CEOs and some Commonwealth representation.
About three months ago the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) provided NEHTA with $131 Million in funding over three years for initiatives in the areas of clinical terminology and patient and provider identification. The timetable for these initiatives to be operational extends to 2009. In the meantime, in terms of meeting the implicit goals of the premise identified above not much seems to be happening, and indeed it could be claimed, with some justification, that a wet blanket of indecision and uncertainty has been cast over the Australian e-Health Space. The fact that NEHTA says it is determining the National Standards to be used in e-Health in Australia, but has yet to decide what they should be, is not helpful to most participants in the sector.
This has been made worse by the approach NEHTA has adopted to its communications with stakeholders. These stakeholders include medical practitioners, pharmacists, nurses, patients, the medical software industry, health system managers and others. It would be fair to say that outside the e-health cogniscenti NEHTA is virtually unknown and that the public in general are totally unaware of its existence. Worse still, is that despite being publicly funded and having accumulated a great deal of valuable intellectual capital over the last two years, essentially none of this material has been shared with the specialists working in the e-health space or the community in general.
Parties impacted by this authoritarian vacuum have essentially responded by moving forward as best they can, not asking permission but recognising at some point they may have to seek forgiveness. Consequently, we have seen emerging the use of an increasing variety of clinical communication systems and tools from multiple providers, be they pathology or radiology service providers or local hospitals, wanting to communicate with local GPs. Each has tried to service the needs of their customers within the known Standards.
Further we see a patchwork of potentially non-harmonised hospital systems being purchased and implemented by the different States as well as a progressively fragmented market in the private hospital sector.
It seems that over the last few decades there has been a significant trend towards acceptance of the idea that it is managers and experts, rather than clinicians, who know what is best in the running of hospitals and the delivery of patient care. The consequences of this ‘managerialist’ approach has been amply demonstrated in the outcomes seen recently in Queensland Health, where ultimately a Health Minister had to apologise to a physician who was wrongly disciplined by departmental bureaucrats.
NEHTA appears to have only one practicing clinician among its publicly acknowledged 30+ staff and no clinicians on its Board. This is a recipe leading to a profound clinical ‘disconnect’ and loss of a proper appreciation of NEHTA’s raison d’etre.
What is needed, is for NEHTA to get back to servicing its stakeholders – the clinicians and their patients. To achieve this it needs to continue with the work already initiated and at the same time start developing and making public a road-map; one that is focussed on meeting the objective of getting systems that make a difference into the hands of clinicians as soon as possible. What is needed by clinicians is well known. Indeed, a full description has been publicly available in detailed reports for over a decade!
If this is not done very soon we will find ourselves with a health system that is not properly wired, that will be more unsafe than it should be, and which will be inefficient and unnecessarily costly. The six year HealthConnect experiment was finally put out of its misery in the 2006 Budget papers (disappearing without trace!). The NEHTA experiment has now been running for two years and as best anyone can tell not a single patient has benefited from its work. It is time NEHTA explained to the public and to the caring professions how NEHTA is going to address the information needs of the Health System and when we can expect to see some substantive change. Lives are being lost as NEHTA cogitates in secret.David.