Allied health needs access to eHealth: NPHCP chairman

The new chairman of the National Primary Health Care Partnership (NPHCP) has flagged a more activist role and sharper policy work for the organisation, citing a need to circle the wagons around primary care funding ahead of the election, improve ties with doctors, and level the playing field for eHealth support in the sector.

Australasian Podiatry Council CEO Damian Mitsch – who was elected this week to the head of the umbrella group of 23 peak health bodies – has a background in IT and aged care.

Mr Mitsch spent a decade at the Australian Physiotherapy Association before joining APodC. He is also a director at Austin Health.

“The professional bodies are vehicles of members,” Mr Mitsch said. “They are groups of members working on behalf of professions and, quite frankly, if the professional bodies aren’t there fighting to bring about positive change for the consumers of professional services, no one else will.”

Mr Mitsch said that professional engagement would determine Australia’s future, and would act as a bulwark against “really bad decisions” being taken by governments.

“I’d say to rank-and-file members that the next 20 years are some of the most crucial,” he said. “There are some of the largest changes and shifts in the health landscape and workforce landscape that we will have seen in several generations.

“It’s critically important that we’re in there driving the agenda, that they’re part of the grassroots movement to drive that.”

Australia as a whole needed to catch up in the health sector, particularly when it comes to the use of technology, Mr Mitsch said.

“Healthcare in this country has not had the opportunity to take full advantage of an investment in technology,” he said. “We have invested quite heavily in medical technology and devices, but we haven’t capitalised on the gains other industries have made through an investment in general technology.”

Mr Mitsch acknowledged that allied health was also behind general practice in eHealth adoption.

“The great challenge, of course, is that if you look at the landscape, the federal government has invested very, very heavily in getting doctors up to speed and out of the cottage industry that they were in 15 years ago in terms of technology,” he said.

“We’ve seen PIP flowing through the practices for quite some time now, and the doctors are getting to a point where technology is now part of what a GP does on a daily basis. That investment hasn’t been made outside of medical general practice.

“So one of the great barriers for the members of the partnership has been that even when there are new things announced, like the PCEHR, it’s almost like the first telephone ever invented: if the doctors have it but nobody else does, it’s going to make it very difficult to get the maximum benefit for the Australian population.”

Mr Mitsch said the government could expand the sector’s access to eHealth in two ways.

“Part of that would be to bring some of the practice software providers into the PCEHR discussion and to provide them some support to get linked into the PCEHR,” he said.

“Some of that would be to invest in opening some of the opportunities that currently exist to medicos to participate.”

Mr Mitsch said there was no reason why other professionals should not be part of the ePIP program.

“It’s really about recognising that there are other players in the health IT space who can help to bring the benefits of these sorts of platforms to consumers, and to be prepared to let those people play in the space as part of a level playing field,” he said.

This in turn would improve patient participation, Mr Mitsch said. “We need to invest in giving patients better access to information, better access to their health engagement,” he said.

“One of the things that has frustrated me for a long time is that patients are heavily invested in their own health, yet the information about an individual’s health is scattered around a variety of providers and often doesn’t come back to the patient.

“It wasn’t that long ago where the privacy legislation actually pried it out of people’s hands and gave the patient access to that information.

“My view is that we need to allow consumers to own their health story than they do today, and technology is a great way to do that, but we’ve got to get the notion around people’s heads that the consumer has to be the central player in that.

“We’ve got to get the keys to the consumer, and let them start to help us to help them.”

Asked to nominate something he wanted to achieve in his term as chairman, Mr Mitsch said he wanted doctors to be more engaged in the partnership.

“If we could get the RACGP to join the partnership, we’d be very happy – we’d be thrilled to have them,” he said.

Another matter occupying Mr Mitsch’s mind is the upcoming federal election. He said that while the NPHCP members might not always agree on everything, there were many common aims that the partnership wanted to put to the government and opposition before they announce their policies.

“The number one message is that there needs to be a heavy investment in primary care – much more so than has been in the past,” Mr Mitsch said.

“While there’s a lot of contention about the future of Medicare Locals – and it would be fair to say that there are different views among the partnership around what Medicare Locals should be and/or are – one consistent thing you can take from the partnership is that there have to be mechanisms to invest in primary care to keep people out of unnecessary tertiary services.

“We just can’t afford to keep pumping money into tertiary hospitals.”

Mr Mitsch had brickbats and bouquets for both parties.

“Government is putting a lot of money into primary care through Medicare Locals,” he said. “We need to see results out of that. We’ve not seen the results yet. For sure, we need to be patient, but we need to keep that investment up.

“On the Liberal side of the fence, there has been some speculation and some comments about the need to reduce bureaucracy and the need to eliminate unnecessary duplication. Fine – we don’t have a strong opposition to that notion, as long as that isn’t seen as an opportunity to rip money out of primary care and to water down the investment.”

Posted in Allied Health

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