Health data


Analytics International HIMSS Senior Vice President Tim Kelsey argues that we need a national digital health strategy that aims to establish a single lifetime health record for every Australian that travels with them wherever they live and whichever services they use.

Australian governments agreed a national digital health strategy in 2017 and significant progress has been made – My Health Record provides citizens and their care professionals with online access to key health information; a set of interoperability principles have been developed; and standards to enable secure digital communications between providers have been developed and tested (raising the real prospect of an end to the use of fax machines in clinical practice).

Australia needs to build on these foundations to implement nationwide interoperability and, in time, empower a single, lifetime comprehensive health record that can be shared between all health providers and is accessible to the resident or citizen whenever they choose. This would be a dynamic platform to support care co-ordination and clinical decision making – and also empower people to take more control of their health and wellbeing when they choose to. It would empower them to share their data, if they choose, for research into new treatments and medicines.

The first priority for Australian governments in developing a single, lifetime comprehensive record is to agree on common data standards for clinical information – including adoption of the Individual Health Identifier (IHI) as the primary identifier for all medical records. The IHI, a federal initiative, already provides a unique 16-digit number for all eligible residents in Australia – this should be used by state and territory governments as well as private providers as the de facto standard for all health and care services. In this way, data can follow the patient wherever they are treated and improve the value of health data for analytic purposes, empowering insights into the quality of care provided and its effectiveness.

Why should it be done?

Around 250,000 people each year are admitted to hospital because of a medication error – principally because the clinician prescribing the medicine doesn’t have access to their patient’s paper medical record and makes an inadvertent mistake. Digital records can be shared safely in real time, reducing the risk of medication error. Digital health is a clinical, social and economic priority – improving the safety and effectiveness of care while reducing the administrative burden on frontline staff as well as waste and duplication in clinical practice. It is also a human imperative, supporting people to make the right health and care choices for them. COVID-19 has underscored how important this is – the availability of virtual care and telehealth services to keep people safe when they needed medical attention has been transformed during the crisis. Maintaining the momentum of these digital services requires ongoing political and financial commitment to embedding the principles and standards of interoperability in Australian healthcare.

What will this achieve?

In many respects, Australia is a global leader in digital health – at national and jurisdictional levels. My Health Record is an example and, in particular, its far-sighted guarantee that an individual can control who else sees the information it contains. Sharing information more comprehensively to connect the national health ecosystem will yield extraordinary social and economic benefits – not just in supporting the sustainability and quality of services in an age of fiscal constraint and demographic pressure, but also in empowering innovation and enterprise and the development of new digital industries.

This is a chapter in Digitising human services, a CEDA report in which six technology and services experts discuss how to build on the rapid digitisation brought on by COVID-19 to deliver better human services. Click here to read the other sections and an overview by CEDA Chief Economist Jarrod Ball.

Other recent CEDA research