A connected health system

As digital ways of doing things are becoming part of our everyday lives and, as we all get better at it, we see its value and indeed its potential.  At the same time this has increased consumer expectations that this potential will be harnessed in ways that will improve all our lives.

Digital health is one area where this is the case and consumers' expectations are coming in loud and clear, through Consumers Health Forum research, consultations, and surveys over the past year or more.  Importantly the messages we hear are validated by research by others as well.

With their consent, consumers want their health information to be shared with and between their health providers in a safe and secure manner.   More often than not this is not happening causing real frustration and concern, particularly for those whose health issues require them to move across different health care settings with a range of different health providers. A consistent complaint from consumers is they find they must continually retell their story to each provider.  This also raises concerns around the safety and quality of care as they move across the health system and multiple providers.

The real solution to this serious dilemma is the creation of a connected health system and by this, we mean a technically connected system. As often occurs, particularly in the digital technology space the language used can be obscure. Thus, when talking about digital health you are likely to have recently come across the now commonly used word “interoperability”.  This, simply put, has to do with the way computer software systems can connect and communicate with each other. In healthcare, it is the ability of different information technology systems and software applications to communicate, exchange data and use the relevant health information provided.  In basic terms, it means creating a connected health system.

Many of the health care events experienced by consumers occur in a range of different settings, general practice, hospitals, EDs and specialists for example. When we realise that each setting may use different computer software that doesn’t talk to other computer software, the value of ensuring they can talk to each other becomes clear. The benefits of creating a truly connected health system where a patient’s providers have access to all relevant patient health information for decision making and can share information to other providers on relevant history, diagnosis, treatments, and pathology and diagnostic imaging tests, are immense.

Creating a connected health system, however, is not just about the technology.  Progressing a way forward is a vast undertaking which is only now at a very early stage.  One of the key complexities relates to the Australian health funding model where States and Territories are responsible for funding some parts of the health system, such as hospitals, and the Federal Government has responsibility for things like general practice, aged care, Medicare, and Pharmaceutical Benefits.  The fact that each jurisdiction can and do create their own way of incorporating digital health into their areas of health responsibility is a barrier to a truly connected health system.

In terms of a major step forward towards creating a connected health system the Federal Government, through the Australian Digital Health Agency, has recently undertaken major consultations on a “Draft National Digital Health Interoperability Plan”.  An overriding focus will be collaboration with all jurisdictions to provide consistency in approaches to digital health.

Consumers consistently call for, and are increasingly demanding, many of the benefits that a connected health system can deliver.  However, the ultimate key to success will be based on consumer trust and confidence, their right to control access to their health information and maintaining the privacy and security of their health information.


About the author

Julia Nesbitt

Julia Nesbitt is Digital Health Policy Advisor at Consumers Health Forum  

Julia has worked extensively in e-health and digital health for over 20 years. She has a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) (ANU) and a Master of International Law (ANU). She has held positions in management with the Australian Medical Association in General Practice and E-Health, Strategic Policy Officer with the National Electronic Health Transition Authority, and a Director in eHealth for the Dept of Health and Ageing (DOHA), predominantly working on development of GP incentive measures (Practice Incentive Program) aimed at driving uptake of digital health.

Julia has extensive international experience, including representing Australia as a member of the United Nations and the World Health Association.