Interoperability and Innovation in Australian Health Care

For many people, innovation carries the image of caffeine addled technologists huddled around computer workstations working deep into the night. However, this highly creative phase of technology development drives only a relatively small proportion of the innovation that impacts the Australian healthcare IT environment.

In Australia, most of the innovation that will address the challenges facing our healthcare system will focus around how to select and implement existing technology in a necessarily conservative marketplace, an activity which relies on a different sort of creativity and skill. It is driven by the ability of healthcare institutions, technologists and vendors to communicate, educate and support individuals exploring the technology options available to them.

Donald Berwick’s article, Disseminating Innovations in Healthcare (JAMA, 2003 Vol. 289, p1969) provides a good review of the forces impacting technology acceptance in healthcare. He describes a history of healthcare where the distribution of ideas can be dangerously slow. The largely cultural issues that impact this slow technology proliferation are focused around the perceived value of the technology, an individual’s predisposition to engage in change and the management/leadership within the group. The common thread running through all these factors is one of communication. It’s the ability for key decision makers to see and understand the technology and its impacts; to be able to discuss with others how these technologies are being implemented; and to physically observe the technology working, these are the most powerful drivers that influence technology adoption.

One program that is squarely focused on accelerating the diffusion of health IT through these principles is the Australian Interoperability program, which is supported by the Health Informatics Society of Australia and HL7 Australia . This program brings together the major Australian health information systems suppliers, along with the technologists and systems integrators, responsible for delivering the supporting communications infrastructures.

The program’s objective is to construct fully interconnected health IT systems that can demonstrate to Australian healthcare decision makers the capacity for Australia to build and deploy these health information systems and to see the benefits that can be derived from them. It enables healthcare leaders to actually interact with the systems and better understand the value they generate. In particular, interoperability highlights the ability of these systems to create new health-critical information by combining data from many previously unlinked and disparate information sources.

After months of planning, the interoperability team, comprising some of the leading Health IT experts in Australia, assembled at Telstra’s Innovation Centre in Sydney. Here they took the four scenarios that describe the patient experiences being demonstrated at this year’s interoperability event and established what was in effect, fully interconnected Health IT systems covering all the major information interactions that occur within Australian health facilities. This massive undertaking included all communications within single health institutions and across multiple health sites.

What does this mean for the diffusion of innovation? Well, it enables healthcare managers to physically see the benefits of what has often been a theoretical systems proposal for them. By doing so, it gives them the confidence that these systems work in an Australian health environment and that there are the support resources they need to build and maintain these systems. By gathering together healthcare managers who have similar objectives in deploying these systems, discussion and learning comes from their shared experiences. All these are key elements in accelerating the diffusion of innovation in healthcare.

The interoperability program brings vendors and technologists together to critically look at the systems issues associated with interoperability. It provides a unique and safe environment where they can further develop their intersystem communications skills. In doing this we are building a stronger technology capacity in Australia and further developing the functionality and applicability of these products for Australian healthcare. Admittedly, the interoperability program has also involved many technologists huddled around workstations, and yes, there were large amounts of coffee consumed (thank you Telstra). However, the focus here is not new technology, but rather the strengthening of Australian healthcare’s ability to implement critically important and exciting, but existing, technology advancements.

If you would like to see this demonstration in action, please come along to the Health Informatics Conference (HIC 2006) on at the Sydney Convention Centre (August 20th to 23rd). More information is available at the HIC website .

Posted in Australian eHealth

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