When I got back from a family camping trip this month I noticed that, apparently, the government had made important eHealth announcements shortly before Christmas Day. In summary, the news was that the government is going ahead with its plans, despite objections from the RACGP, AMA and others. Hardly surprising, but still disappointing.
Practices will miss out on their IT support payments if they don’t get their doctors to upload patient health summaries to the PCEHR (now called MyHealth Record). These IT support payments were originally introduced to make sure practices have up-to-date computer systems.
The Department must have known that GPs are usually not employed by practices and that most are ‘contractors’. This effectively means that they run their own independent businesses within a practice. Stopping payments to the practice does not directly affect their hip pocket unless they own the practice. So this is bad news for business owners. The strategy could affect the quality, safety and security of the medical IT systems – which is not good for patient care.
The question is: will doctors be using the eHealth system more often as a result of this change?
The wrong tool
Dr Nathan Pinskier, chair of the RACGP expert committee for eHealth and Practice Systems was quoted in Australian Doctor magazine saying: “Practices can’t compel GPs to upload these health summaries. So the practice faces losing the whole payment. [The government] is using the wrong tool. If you want to fund GPs to do this work, then think about a separate MBS item number.”
Some of the responses from doctors to this article give a rough idea of what the general opinion seems to be:
“I will not participate in this ill-considered e-health scheme until the legislation catches up to make the e-health record ‘fit for purpose’ as a clinical tool for clinicians and not just as a data mine for Government auditors.”
“All this decision does is confirm that Ms Ley and Dept of health with their rhetoric of conciliation and discussion in consultation with primary care are nothing but a load of lies and an insult to primary care.”
“Then there will be all the vultures, like insurance and finance companies, who will start circling, seeing getting access (by a degree of sophisticated patient blackmail) to this information as a great cheap way of getting what they want without having to pay us for a report.”
“The daily GP practice number median (50% more, 50% less) is 40 patients a day (Medicare data). That is a practical average of 8 – 10 minutes a patient. If accessing, discussing, uploading adds an extra 5 minutes a patient, that will be a reduction in bulk billed cash flow of 33%. Overheads will remain the same. Can you afford it?”
Judith Sloan, economics journalist at The Australian Newspaper, wrote: “It’s a type of childlike optimism – the idea that governments can achieve lots of good things through the creation of large-scale, all-embracing information technology platforms.”
“(…) But rather than ditch what is an incredibly wasteful commitment of taxpayer money, the current government has decided to press on and switch from an opt-in arrangement to one in which patients are forced to have a PCEHR unless they object.”
Dr Pinskier in Australian Doctor magazine: “We have a view that there is a role in the 21st century for a consumer health record. But it’s unclear to doctors whether the MyHeath record is a consumer record, a clinical record or hybrid.”
“(…) It is still unclear what real purpose it serves. (…) It was a good idea a decade ago but now we have cloud-based technologies. We are moving away from Big Brother data systems. Is [the MyHealth system] still relevant?”
The AMA has also indicated that it’s unhappy about the changes to the eHealth incentive structure. In the meantime, opt-out trials are being prepared, which are another attempt to push health consumers and practitioners into using the heavily criticised system.
The other issues we can of course expect is that the targets will be increased but the incentive payments to practices will decrease over time. Not something to look forward to in the current climate of Medicare rebate freezes.
What happens with our data?
There are oncerns about the secondary use of the data in the record as well as excessive penalties for health providers. Monash University researcher Juanita Fernando recently wrote in a response on this blog: “As we have known for some time, the MyHR legislation explicitly allows the data to be used for reasons other than health care. GPs have seemed to be blissfully unaware that their own medical records may legitimately be accessed by any and all of their peers or colleagues.”
“Under the current MyHR ‘opt-out’ paradigm, everyone will actually have a record created, even if they opt out, only it will be ‘hidden’ on opt out. The security of this hidden record is not guaranteed. We seem not to have the option to have it not created.”
Secondary use of data, or the use of patient health information for purposes other than clinical care, is usually not the first thing people think of, but the recent revelation that over 60 organisations, including AHPRA, have applied to access our metadata for various reasons, is a reminder that this could be reality soon.
What the College says
RACGP President Dr Frank Jones said in a senate submission: “Penalties which may be applied for the misuse of MyHealth Record appear excessive and unnecessary and will greatly deter use by busy general practitioners. Provisions for penalties already exist within the Australian Privacy Principles so it is not clear why there is a need for additional penalties, civil or criminal, to be imposed.”
As everybody knows, the main thing that has been missing all along is genuine engagement with GPs. The RACGP submission to the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) Review Taskforce hit the nail on the head and the government would do well to heed this advice:
“Meaningful engagement between the Federal Government and the healthcare sector is needed to address these issues and for myHealth Record to be successfully adopted.
The submission continued: “Meaningful use of MyHealth Record relates to safety, quality, communication and healthcare outcomes – not data collection. Characterising myHealth Record as a data source rather than a tool to support clinical practice is of concern to GPs, who will be the primary users of the system (…).”
All in all I’m becoming less and less optimistic about the future of the national e-health database, and it seems I’m not the only one. There are many alternatives but sadly the government is pushing ahead and, whether it does so on purpose or not, the project is rapidly getting closer to the edge of that big, overhanging cliff. The analogy with lemmings comes to mind.