e-Health: many challenges still linger, including the rollout of the NBN. Photo: Andrew Quilty
From wireless to wearables, Australia’s health care system is on the cusp of a digital technology revolution, but issues of privacy, ownership of patient records and cyber security need to be ironed out first.
That's the view of Kenneth Morgan, special advisor to the vice chancellor of Flinders University on cyber security and resilience, who discussed the future of e-health at CeBIT’s eHealth conference in Sydney this week.
"People will have more control over their health. This is the digital health revolution," he said.
When micro-sensors in wearable technology such as watches and wristbands measure a patient’s heart rate and the information can be monitored by the patient, or remotely by a health organisation, or when rugs with sensors can analyse steps to see how people are walking, a patient may not need to see a doctor as often.
“We’re moving towards independent living for seniors," Professor Morgan said.
But we're not there yet. The sluggish advancement of Australia’s health system towards a digital future is one of the topics CSIRO’s Sarah Dods discussed in her CeBIT presentation, The Digitally Enabled Health System of the Future.
Dr Dods attributed the delay to different attitudes towards risk by the health and technology sectors.
"Health professionals are very conservative about change, whereas things move faster in the digital world. Doing things differently means things can go wrong," she said. "The consequences of risk in the health space can kill people, but in a digital world it just means you’re not first [to market]."
However, Australia’s national broadband network should enable health care and analysis to be conducted remotely in rural areas.
For example, using broadband to connect outback Australia to a city specialist for review, or remote delivery of services through mobile phone platforms into the home.
"Or if you come home from hospital and can’t drive, you can receive services through your phone," Dr Dods said.
CSIRO has developed mobile robots to enable remote clinicians to participate in ward rounds in major hospitals through a high-speed broadband connection.
With such advances in wireless technology and mobile platforms, Professor Morgan said that radiologists for example would not be hospital bound to read X-rays, they would be able to read them remotely through their mobile device.
Professor Morgan is also concerned about the growing issue of ownership and control of Australia’s Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record, an online summary of a person’s health information.
Who owns patient information - the patient, doctor, or hospital? According to the Privacy Act, patients control their data, he said.
"This means they can look at their records. But do they own the data? That’s the big debate," he said. “There are commercial interests, such as drug companies, alternative medicine companies, insurance companies, who are interested in the patient’s lifestyle and what drugs they are taking."
Then there is the risk of hijacked personal health records.
"In some countries, there have been security breaks of health records and people have been blackmailed," Professor Morgan said.
He added Australia should export its well-regarded expertise in telehealth (digital delivery of health services to remote areas) and telemedicine (digital diagnosis and treatment), but also embrace digital technology in hospitals.
"Hospitals are [only now] moving towards digital devices such as tablets instead of a clipboard. Patient information is still written down at the bedside."