What should a national digital health system look like?

May 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

What is the role of government in contributing to the nation digital health infrastructure? That is not an easy question to answer. Every nation has its own specific variant of a health system, with different emphases on the public or private, on central government intervention or laissez-faire commerce.  I have in earlier blogs made the point that, despite these differences in national systems, we now collectively have enough experience that we cannot ignore the evidence when crafting national strategies.

Back in 2009, when I explored the implications of these structural differences for government, I came to the conclusion that digital health needed a ‘middle out’ governance model, rather than top-down or bottom-up approaches to strategy. One consequence of the thinking in that paper was that I formed a view that we did not need a centralised national summary care record – a view which left me with fewer friends in government than I used to have! I was only trying to be helpful …

With a new Australian Digital Health Agency, it is now a good time to revisit these questions, to learn from the past, and to come together as an informatics and e-health community, and give ourselves the best possible shot at getting digital health right.

Digging through my papers recently, I came across this briefing paper I wrote for the Secretary of Health in 2008 – well before the middle out and summary care record papers. It was a time when Facebook was in the ascendancy, so I used the term ‘Healthbook’ to portray my ideas for a distributed, federated digital information system.  Maybe now is a good time to revisit its spirit, if not the technical details?

‘Healthbook’ – the consumer as catalyst for the creation of a national ehealth infrastructure

E. Coiera, 2 May 2008

Briefing paper to DOHA

Current situation

Australia like many nations is struggling to identify a strategic approach to creating a health information infrastructure that is technically feasible, low risk, and affordable.

The current proposal for a national shared electronic health record (SEHR), presumes a centralised, potentially monolithic, structure, where every Australian has a health record summary stored for them, to facilitate health care provision. The mental model is similar to English NHS’ system, which has cost billions of pounds to implement, and has experienced significant technical and implementation challenges on the way. If Australia were to take a similar centralised approach to the SEHR, then it too would cost several billion dollars, presuming our cost structures are similar to the English NHS, and face its own technical risks. And after investing that money we are locked into ageing technologies that require continued significant investment. Implementation starts, but it never ends.

A second disadvantage of beginning with a centralised SEHR is that it demands ‘delayed gratification’. There is massive up front investment, substantial pain within the health jurisdictions during implementation, with benefits only arriving after many years, and little for consumers to see or appreciate despite the large sums of money being invested. It also draws resources away from other cheaper, but potentially higher value, elements of the eHealth infrastructure, specifically decision support technologies, which have great capability to reduce harm, improve safety, and deliver efficiency gains through more evidence-based use of investigations and therapeutics.

A different way

An alternative approach has emerged. Imagine that, rather than waiting 5-10 years for a ‘centrally planned’ SEHR (that is what it may take) we achieve many of the same goals in less than 5 years, at significantly less cost to government, in a market-driven and industry lead way, growing organically and flexibly, rapidly adopting technological innovation, and potentially building up new export industries for Australia’s IT industry. Imagine also if this new way had strong support from consumers, because it was all about them and their health care, and not about putting in expensive ‘backroom’ technologies they will never see.

There are three elements to this approach:

1 – The shareable record can be consumer rather than health service focussed: Utilising the resources of private industry, consumer demand for access to their record, personal health records are emerging as a major new business sector. The strongest evidence for this is the move by two of the largest IT companies into this space. Microsoft has made its first major step into healthcare with its HealthVault product, and Google Health is emerging as their main competitor. Both offer consumers a service to store their personal health information, and to make it accessible to health providers with consumer consent.

In the US many large health service organizations have many millions of their patients using locally developed personal health records, for example the VA hospitals, and Partners. Similar activities are underway here with smaller start-up companies e.g. myvitals.com. Expect a flurry of such companies to appear locally, or arrive from overseas, over the next 12 months.

There is much to be commended about personal health records, but there are also some major limitations, including – the potential for the consumer created record to be of poor quality or perceive to be so by clinicians, the lack of interoperability between different systems, the consequent locking in of one’s records to a single vendor, the poor connectivity between health service provider records and personal health records, the significant risk that personal health information may be used for secondary and commercial purposes, and for Australian’s, the very real risk that core national IP – the health records of all Australians, is stored overseas – resulting in a massive transfer of information and wealth overseas.

2 – The rise of social computing. While there has been talk of the internet being an online community since the mid ‘90s, only in the last 2 years has this really taken off, with Facebook, My space and others providing a sophisticated social networking experience that has caught the imagination of the average consumer, trained consumers in sophisticated information sharing strategies, and developed software to support this. Consumers are now comfortable to carry out many of their most personal transactions on the web, from banking, to finding partners and socializing. Blogging has created a generation that is far more comfortable in sharing their personal information than any before.

3 – The continuing rise of search. Google and its competitors continue to prosper. Health information is amongst the top two categories of information searched for. Consumers want information about their health, and continue to turn more to the Internet for that information.

Putting these three together it may now be possible for private industry to create information services that challenge the centralized monolithic SEHR model, and create a rich and flexible ehealth infrastructure on the way.

The idea of a facebook for health (or ‘healthbook’) is fairly straightforward – it is a web space where you manage your health information and access health information services, in the same way that your internet banking account is the place you manage your wealth e.g. looking at account balances, paying bills, transferring funds. There will be many competing ‘healthbook’ systems provided by industry, and we can expect companies to be offering consumers at least some or all of the following services:

  1. A personal health record, where you enter your own health information;
  2. Access to health information e.g. search engines, local guidelines, drug information, health leaflets;
  3. A social computing environment in which a personal health record and information can be shared amongst family, friends, clinicians, and groups;
  4. Links to a selected subset of health providers, allowing them to see personal health records, exchange messages (reminders, appointments, results, health messages), and maybe allow you to see some of their records about you e.g. a division of GPs might offer this service, or a private health insurer may negotiate with health service providers to offer this to their clients.

It is important to emphasise that we are not saying that the personal record now becomes the shared health record – it cannot and should not – but that the links to different clinical record systems we might find in a ‘healthbook’ effectively provides the first stage in shared access to clinical records. While such systems will grow organically, and possibly quite quickly, there are several missing pieces and some concerns that need to be addressed, including:

  • Message exchange and access to your records stored by the public hospital system
  • Message exchange and access to your records stored by other health services not part of the particular online consortium you join.
  • Interoperability between systems, allowing consumers to take their personal health information, and linked messages and records, to a different provider.
  • Protections for Australian health information going overseas and being exploited for secondary commercial purposes.
  • Accreditation of healthbook providers to ensure clinical service providers and patients are comfortable in making their clinical records available via them.

If issues such as these were addressed quickly, we may in Australia be creating business conditions not yet operating anywhere else in the world, and create an opportunity for our local IT industry to corner or at least become highly competitive in a new business clearly destined to become the single largest information technology market.

It thus seems entirely feasible for government to choose not to invest in a monolithic national e-health infrastructure, but foster competition and rapid expansion of a web and business driven infrastructure. Government creates appropriate protections for the community and their personal information while supporting high quality and safe clinical care. Government is a key enabler, working with the professions and individuals to identify incentives and provides critical missing elements needed to fast track this world, including regulation, legislation, investment in making jurisdictional systems interoperable, provision of public knowledge and information sources, and investment in evaluation and research to drive evidence-based innovation.

What might happen next

If government steps in to address some of these barriers to fully interconnecting consumer-based personal health records, we could imagine three stages in the evolution of our national eHealth infrastructure:

Stage 1 (next 2 years) – Personal health record systems available and taken up by a few Australian. Some offer access to knowledge services e.g. Healthinsite; some service providers band together to allow their records to be linked to these systems and for messages to be exchanged between providers and consumers within this system. Records might be shareable within these restricted health service organizations. Standards are being developed by NEHTA, ISO and Standards Australia, and industry and the jurisdictions are moving to comply with these as they install eHealth systems.

Stage 2 (2-3 years) – Messaging standards and unique and secure IDs for every Australian (the UPI) are in place and allow communication between providers and any standards compliant ‘healthbook’. Record portability legislation encourages innovation and competition and avoids monopoly outcomes (similar to mobile telephone number portability, where a consumer can take their phone number and address book from one Telco handset and swap them to a different one). Some state jurisdictions and primary care divisions provide standard secure web interfaces to any accredited private system, and consumers chose to link to their records in these systems, if they are aware that they are able to. When viewing linked records they appear in non-standard ways, dependent on the structure of the local system the record sits on. 10% of Australians have a ‘healthbook’ page, with international IT companies amongst the major players, but Australians may end up trusting their health providers and government with their private information, so the biggest user base may be found with Divisions of general practice, or private health insurance companies. Many other players jockey for dominance.

Stage 3 (3-5 years) – Interoperability standards have allowed any accredited record provider to provide a discoverable web service, so that any healthbook can access these records, with consumer permission. This means when you create your new healthbook account and put in your UHI, the system will find all the records associated with your care that are on the web, and ask you if you want to link them in. When records are browsed from within a consumer space, they have a uniform appearance. So, irrespective of which company’s ‘Healthbook’ you use, a clinician can always find the information they want in the same place, by selecting the ‘common user interface’ option. It is possible to extract elements of provider records into a personal health record manually or automatically. For example, you can extract medication lists, test results, or allergies from your GP system into your personal health record.

For those who choose it, their treating clinician may decide which data gets extracted from the clinical record into the personal summary record. For Australians who are not interested in using a private system, or are unable to do so, a ‘vanilla’ personal health record is made available, possibly via the jurisdictions, that allows a provider to see other linked records for a given patient, with a patient’s consent. Local Australian companies provide the back end service to consumer health sites, with the front end run by large health delivery organizations e.g. public hospital systems, and private insurers. International IT companies provide some of the core technologies underpinning these systems but the data is stored in Australia, protected by legislation from going offshore, or even analyses of the data going offshore.

The Role of government

Government has a role to:

  • Facilitate – through standards activities (NEHTA) and early investment for industry development and research. For example COAG may wish to provide seed funding for 2-4 large-scale implementations e.g. requiring each consortium to include a public hospital system, a primary care organization, and for some % of the industry membership to be locally based. This attracts industry to invest, and creates a competitive climate in which innovation is focussed on delivering to the consumer as the main customer. It should be clear investment is for start up and that all programs need to be self-funding at the end of the projects. There may be incentives for meeting subscription and transaction rate milestones, and for health services incentives for meeting outcome targets e.g. preventative health activities. There may be penalties for failure to deliver, including withholding of payments should benchmarks not be met. There should be some key deliverables that we expect of out any such consortia, including:
    1. Working with standards organizations like NEHTA, they should agree on a working record portability standard and mechanism, that allows a consumer to extract their personal health record, provider messages, links to clinical records, and any other information such as a future shared health record, and transfer it to another provider;
    2. Consortia should demonstrate interoperability between each other for record mobility between consortia, and for messaging between providers and different consortia.
    3. Working with standards organizations, the consortia should agree on a default ‘common user interface’, which provides a uniform way of accessing linked records, messages, and patient data for clinicians and consumers. There is no obligation to use this interface as different systems will want to ‘value add’ and provide better user experiences for their customers. We want to ensure that clinicians will only need to learn how to access healthbook records once, and always find the information they need in the same place every time – for safety as well as efficiency reasons.
    4. Demonstrated use of a unique personal identifier like the UHI, ensuring secure and safe creation of new accounts, protection of personal information, and ease of access in clinical situations.
    5. Demonstrated security and consent mechanisms so that consumers feel safe using these systems.
  • Protect – the privacy of individuals, and the national IP – through legislation, and where appropriate accreditation. Consumers will need record portability and not be locked into one vendor, so legislation should allow for consumers to extract their digital records from any one vendor and move to another. Consumers and providers will want to know that healthbook systems are accredited before records are linked into them, and that accreditation ensures that records made available this way are not used for any purpose other than clinical care, and only with the consent of consumers.
  • Evaluate – We need benchmarks for this program, both in terms of uptake by citizens, as well as adoption rates, usage and benefits. Evaluation programs for benefits are best run by independent organizations, and this is a clear role for academic institutions.
  • Ensure Access – Ensuring all citizens and health service providers have access via a decent broadband system, and for those citizens who choose not to actively be engaged, or are unable e.g. infirm, elderly, then create an option of clinician or health service managed e-services where the consumer gives permission for their ‘healthbook’ to be created for them. Facilitate early adoption by service providers with an incentives program (e.g. to make practice records linkable to commercial systems).
  • Innovate – We want Australian industry to have access to new ideas and IP to make them competitive with the US industry in particular, and there is a clear opportunity to support Australian R&D and innovation with targeted support for eHealth innovation programs.
  • Participate – where jurisdictions control medical content such as records or knowledge resources (Healthinsite, service or provider directories), make these available and interoperable with private sector systems. Where government has a specific duty to individuals such as military personnel, provide or auspice services available to citizens e.g. military personnel may have records that cannot be linked for security reasons to commercial systems, so a military system might be needed, which links to all public records, but remains secure.

Appendix – Some benefits and ideas worth capturing at this stage

Benefits of this approach

  • A better informed, better engaged population
  • A transition plan to implementing SHER functions, not a ‘big bang’ centralised SHER, which is a single point of failure if things go wrong.
  • Technical and investment risks are lower, as the elements government may want to invest in e.g. standards, making jurisdictional records compliant, and messaging are all required under the monolithic SEHR model too. So, if the consumer-drive model does not work, government can in the future elect to step in and can complete the ‘last mile’ e.g. with health information exchanges.
  • Most of the implementation risk is borne by private enterprise
  • A shift to preventative healthcare, as consumers build for possibly the first time a place where they actively manage their healthcare, and receive targeted messages and support.
  • Safer care – driven by consumer benchmarking and rating, the use of consumer decision support systems, easier interaction with clinicians via messaging, a shareable record that allows clinicians to see the bigger clinical picture.
  • Support for the Australia it industry and research community to become a world leader in a market that is highly lucrative – if there is to be a new company that becomes the Google of healthcare, why could it not be an Australian company?

Ideas

  • Use the healthbook to send reminders for vaccinations, screening tests, routine check ups.
  • Support for healthy journeys e.g. parents with young children accessing information at crucial child development stages, and possibly linking up with the community 1-stop shop proposal by government.
  • If every high school student has a computer why can’t they use ‘healthbook’ applications to manage their exercise and eating regimes, by providing a online social environment where quality information is shared, groups can form e.g. how to cope with anorexia or obesity, providing information and social support?
  • Support for more targeted, efficient access to services e.g. by providing consumers health service directories, similar to ‘choose and book’ in the NHS, with the ability to identify providers, and make appointments. Especially valuable for rural and remote citizens to identify services that might be available to them outside of local area.
  • Consumer based benchmarking of services – similar to Amazon star rating for books (this will happen anyway – best to support it being as informative and balanced as possible).

 

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