8 Apr 2021

Health data system fragmented, leaving clinicians and patients in the dark - IT experts

2:16 pm on 8 April 2021

The Ministry of Health wants to change the way people's medical records are shared nationwide, with IT health experts growing frustrated in the meantime.

The man's GP believed he was getting counselling for his depression.

The man's GP believed he was getting counselling for his depression. Photo: 123RF

It has put a business case to Cabinet for millions of dollars to set up New Zealand's first national health information platform.

The country's hospital IT systems are so outdated, fragmented and insecure they need $2.3 billion spent on them over the next decade, according to official assessments.

Colin McKenzie - who helps run Epsom health diagnostics-handling firm Sysmex, which gets people's lab test results through to whichever clinicians need to see them - grapples with it daily and said it was a struggle.

"If I'm from Hamilton and I get transferred to Auckland for specialist care, they can't see any of my information," he said.

"They'll ring up the other hospital or the region and ask, 'fax through Colin's records if you have them, or attach them to an email'. That's really secure, isn't it?"

People were still surprised when he told them how fractured the health data system remained.

"We have great little silos of data that act regionally, but they're not shared nationally," McKenzie said. "We've made slight progress from a regional perspective ... but no way have we made significant progress from any national perspective."

It was not just clinicians being kept in the dark, but patients wanting to access their own data to stay healthy.

Health Ministry deputy director general of data and digital Shayne Hunter has been pulling together a business case for a data-sharing platform he hopes will be a game changer.

It has gone to a Cabinet committee ahead of next month's Budget.

"We do have some outdated and fragmented systems," Hunter said. "The way to join a map will be through the national health information platform.

"It's a total priority for the ministry, I can tell you."

He said it had surprised him just how much people wanted to be involved in managing their healthcare, and the extent they needed technology to help them do that.

"It didn't surprise us that people thought that we were all joined up, only to find that we weren't," Hunter said.

"People fully expect that their information is digital, that they can go anywhere in the health system, that people can access it.

"What surprised people [was] when we told them, that we can't."

The proposed data-sharing platform will cost several million dollars and take five years to build.

Industry insiders say if the government doesn't approve this in the Budget 2021, frustrated IT companies might just do it themselves.

Malcolm Pollock has led health IT innovation for three decades, and was director of the National Institute for Health Innovation at the University of Auckland.

He released a new report for the Health IT industry group at Parliament yesterday, saying New Zealand had been on a backward slide since the early 1990s and had missed previous chances to reverse it.

"Why haven't we got a system which automatically [travels with you], as a matter of course, in the same way as your financial record from a bank travels around with you, why isn't that information travelling around with them?" Pollock asked.

A data platform was just the start, he said.

Getting more health services digitally - for instance, patients receiving blood pressure or mental health counselling information sent to their smartphone - would make people less reliant on GP or hospital visits and cut down on demand that has seen wards bursting at the seams.

A platform was "absolutely essential", Pollock said.

"It's the foundation stone upon which we can do all of the sort of innovation ... all of the ideas that address issues of inequity, issues of a workforce that is getting increasingly stressed, issues of cost and sustainability, demand and supply.

"We can't do that unless we have the core infrastructure.

"At the moment, it's fragmented ... it certainly does not encourage people to create new and innovative solutions that then can be plugged in."

Health tech companies were waiting to get their new products looked at by DHBs in convoluted procurement processes that sometimes took years.

Pollock said he knew of local companies that had cracked markets in the US and Asia, but found no way through at home.

Pollock's report for NZHIT calls for a new network where local companies can bid for funding for key IT projects, and a new academy that educates nurses and doctors about IT.

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