Even amid economic crisis, it is time to move forward in digital health

IMG_0833I revisited the bronze kangaroos that I photographed during my business trip last February. They still prance in front of the county court house here in Perth, Western Australia.  But much has changed since last year.  All of Australia is focused on the wildfires that are burning out of control along the country’s eastern coast.  Thousands of people are homeless. The death toll has reached more than 200 people and is expected to go even higher once investigators gain access to the most devastated areas.

The wildfires aren’t the only thing different in Australia this year.  Just as in America, you can palpably feel that all is not right with the economy.  The hotels, restaurants, and tourist haunts are all much quieter than last year at this time.  Television ads for Australia’s popular Holden brand of automobiles begin with the words, “In these difficult times…….” There are also signs that construction has slowed in Perth with many projects, just like those kangaroos in front of the court house, frozen in time.

image Of course, I am here not to report on wildfires or review the country’s sagging economy.  I am here to talk with government leaders, hospital executives, clinicians and partners about how and where technology fits in a broader plan to reform and improve healthcare delivery in Australia.

As outlined in the executive summary of a December 2008 National E-Health Strategy Report commissioned by the Victorian Department of Human Services for the 2008 Australian Health Ministers’ Conference; “Australia’s health system delivers some of the world’s best health outcomes. However, maintaining or improving these outcomes in the face of growing pressures on the health care system will require a fundamental change in the way health care is delivered into the 21st century. Change must address the way information is accessed and shared across the health system, which will in turn transform the way health care professionals practice and consumers interact with the health system.” The report goes on to say, “The ultimate benefit achieved from a national E-Health strategy is a safer and more sustainable health system that is equipped to respond to emerging health sector cost and demand pressures. Improvements in the Australian health care system will also drive stronger workforce productivity that is integral to Australia’s long run economic prosperity.”


Australia currently spends about 9 percent of GDP on healthcare.  While this is about half of what America spends to deliver care to its population, the Australian figure is double what it was a decade ago.  And just like the venerable Crystal Bell Tower on the banks on Perth’s Swan River, future healthcare spending in Australia is pointed sky-high as the population ages and the incidence of chronic disease takes its toll.  This is compounded by another problem confronting many developed nations including both America and Australia--not enough doctors and nurses.  25 percent of the physician workforce in Australia today comes from other countries including Asia, China, the Middle East, and Africa.  The government has instituted an emergency program to train more clinicians, but may find it difficult to stay ahead of the curve considering how many years are needed to bring a new physician into the workforce.

All of this makes a strong case for greater use of information technology in healthcare.  Government officials and healthcare executives here are more than ready to harness the power of the Internet, unified communications, mobile devices and solutions, electronic medical records, personal health records, and data analytics to improve care access, quality and safety, and the satisfaction of those both delivering and receiving care.  Over the next week, I’ll be meeting with local authorities in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.  I’ll keep you posted along the way.

Bill Crounse, MD     Senior Director, Worldwide Health      Microsoft Corporation

Comments (3)

  1. mtn doc says:

    Federal economic support for medical IT, while extermely integral to improved healthcare infrastructure, must include provisions for oversight, accountablility, affordability and stability. In 10 years our clinic has paid ten of thousands of dollars for products we no longer use and we were either extremely over charged for hardware or refused hardware with software purchases. There remains an abundance of developers and resellers (VAR) ready to make extreme profits from this administration’s initiative when profits should be used to insure an economically stable product (be in business for multiple years to come); affordable (avoid overselling) and accountability (if an IT business takes federal funding then it ought report back to the feds how it has met this critieria). I have great fears that we will see another .com craze dividing the haves and haves not and in the end offering the practice of medicine no real improvement in IT.

  2. hlthblog says:

    Thanks for writing, mtndoc

    I want you to know that I am totally on board with your thoughts.  In fact, I believe that in addition to encouraging electronic medical records and personal health records, the government must encourage new models for care delivery and the appropriate incentives that will reimburse clinicians for using technology in new and innovative ways to improve patient safety, care quality and access to medical information and services.  We need to go digital in health, but that alone won’t be sufficient to correct what is ailing our health system.

    Bill Crounse, MD

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