Australia joining the world to develop open source e-health tools

Imagine a health system where patient information is shared between a doctor’s office, hospital, lab and even equipment like a heart monitor. That’s the goal of interoperable electronic health (e-health), and Australia, through NEHTA, is working with international organisations on the building blocks that can make this happen.

“The goal is that health information will be available to healthcare professionals regardless of where you are in the country,” said Andy Bond, chief architect for the National E-health Transition Authority (NEHTA). Once an interoperable health system is fully operational, patient information can be shared.

“The end result will be that patients receive a higher standard of care,” Mr Bond said.

An international project involving national health agencies, government-funded organisations, businesses and academic institutions from the UK, US, Canada and Australia was announced on April 8. These organisations will share expertise and work together to produce Open Health Tools (OHT), the building blocks necessary for an interoperable e-health system.

“Previously, work in e-health has been fragmented. OHT will set up a common set of tools for creating the infrastructure. There is no better way to build interoperability than to begin with that common toolset,” Mr Bond said.

“The point of interoperability is not to link the whole community together from the get-go, but to create an environment in which linking different systems together is simple,” explained Andy Bond.

“The telephone network and the Internet are examples of successful interoperable platforms. These systems enable people using a range of different devices to communicate using one platform. Each system might be built in isolation, but because they are built on common standards and infrastructure, they work with other systems without much modification,” Mr Bond added.

The OHT platform is the “health service’s spine” and conceptually, will work in a similar way to the power grid. Power is produced in many different forms, then provided as electricity to appliances and equipment that plug into the grid. In the same way, software components based on the OHT framework will be able to plug into the platform. The open source nature of the OHT code means there will be many thousands of developers contributing to and testing it, ensuring high quality.

Executive director of OHT, Skip McGaughey commented, “Advancements in medical procedures and patient care have changed the way the world views health. However, modern healthcare information technology has not kept pace with the complexity of today’s healthcare systems. Research suggests annual savings of $77.8 billion in the United States alone from the introduction of healthcare information exchange and interoperability.”

The development of an international database of clinical terms is one of the first applications of OHT. SNOMED CT (Systematised Nomenclature of Medicine Clinical Terms) is being developed internationally, with NEHTA the custodian of the Australian license. It contains about one million phrases, and different nations will be able to edit and add to that terminology. Only by adopting a common toolset is this possible.

In Australia, applications developed using the principals of OHT are slowly being introduced.

“At the moment we are creating building blocks with the ability to communicate. When these blocks start working together people will notice the biggest difference,” Andy Bond said.

The first tangible benefit of e-health most people will notice is the introduction of a unique health identifier or eHealth ID, due around 2010. At the moment hospitals, clinics and other health services all identify patients in different ways.

“The eHealth ID is necessary for the new systems to properly communicate. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks, and is a voluntary program. No one will be denied healthcare if they have no eHealth ID, but using one will allow a new level of care,” Andy Bond explained.

As e-health applications are rolled out, some patients may notice their clinicians are better informed as early as 2009, as a result of the new systems. Early e-health innovations will include the ability to receive pathology results and referrals electronically, and prescriptions being sent directly from the doctor to the pharmacist.

“Co-ordinated health care and the ability to share records on a national level to improve the healthcare system for all Australians is the ultimate goal,” Mr Bond said.

Xavier Toby

Posted in Australian eHealth

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