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Thursday, 11 March 2010
Page: 2226


Ms REA (9:49 AM) —It is because I rise to very clearly support the legislation that we are currently debating—the Healthcare Identifiers Bill 2010 and cognate legislation—and also because I am afraid that my colleague the member for Rankin will take a point of order on relevance, that I would like to address my remarks to the legislation rather than counter the irrelevant diatribe that we just heard in the last half of the member for Moncrieff’s speech.

This is a significant piece of legislation and, yes, there are issues that must be dealt with when it comes to dealing with people’s health records, and I will come to some of those issues in a minute. Can I begin by saying that this legislation introduces a 16-digit number which could be the difference in saving someone’s life or indeed improving their quality of health care and therefore their wellbeing for the rest of their life. It is absolutely essential that, if we are going to provide better quality health care in this country—and we all acknowledge, across all levels of government and across the broader community, that there is a need to improve our health system—then we need to embrace the advantages of the digital age, the advantages of new technology, and look at ways in which we can use that technology to improve the healthcare system. This 16-digit number, the individual health indicator, that will be provided to every Australian will go a long way to improving the quality of health care. It is an important initiative. It is not a new one. It was agreed by COAG in 2006, which was prior to the election of the Rudd government, and indeed it was affirmed again by COAG in 2008. Clearly all of those in the government involved in the provision of healthcare services, whether at the state or Commonwealth level, acknowledge that this is a single, very significant reform that will improve health care for all Australians.

We acknowledge that the fundamental premise for anyone using the health system and being provided proper health care is the qualifications and skill of the medical practitioner they go to see. That is essential. But this particular reform means that we have acknowledged that sometimes even the most qualified, well-trained and clever medical practitioner can make a mistake or not provide the best health solution for that individual patient simply because they do not have all of the information or they do not have accurate information that will assist them in their diagnosis and their prescribed solution.

This is a very important reform because it adds to the very skilled work done by our medical professionals. It makes their job easier and it also makes their job better in terms of providing appropriate health care. The statistics show that. There have been studies done in hospitals that show somewhere between 17 and 19 per cent of tests are unnecessary duplicates simply because there is a lack of information about a patient’s medical history. More significantly, 18 per cent of those tests showed medical errors were attributed to a lack of information. So we are not just talking about duplication or unnecessary treatments for people who have a medical history. We are actually talking about the potential for a wrong diagnosis or a wrong treatment. Eighteen per cent of those tests showed medical errors attributed to a lack of information.

So doesn’t it make sense for us to introduce a single, simple process at a national level which provides accuracy and consistency of information that will give everyone accessing the health services greater confidence that their medical practitioner, the health professional they have gone to see, will be able to give them the best quality care because they have all the information they need at their fingertips? It makes perfect sense. It is something I applaud the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health and Ageing for introducing.

I think it is interesting that even amongst the broader medical community there is strong support for this initiative. In fact, during the consultations that occurred around the Health and Hospitals Reform Commission report, I invited a number of local health professionals within my electorate of Bonner to come and discuss with me the proposals that were put forward by the commission. We had a range of people there. We had nurses, doctors, allied health workers and people who worked in aged care in nursing homes—a broad range of people involved in the health sector. They were all very experienced and skilled people and obviously very committed because they took time out of their busy days to come and sit down and have a discussion about the ways that they believed the health system could be improved. They offered us a range of suggestions that I think were very interesting and very exciting. What stood out to me was that, to a person in that room, the single reform they all said could change the quality of health care in this country was moving towards e-health and having a consistent and accurate database of information that was easily accessible by health professionals and health providers across the nation so that, no matter where you were or who you were, your medical history would be available to anyone you went to see because you needed medical advice or medical assistance.

I am very pleased that, having consulted with my local community, obviously this initiative has been reflected across the broader community and has come out as part of a recommendation in the reform commission’s report and has been acknowledged by the minister to the extent that we now have this legislation before us. I think this is a very exciting initiative. I know amongst the broader medical community and across the general Australian community there will be an acknowledgement that this will significantly improve our health system.

Of course, we will have to be mindful that there are issues around introducing an identification number. We have to be mindful that people are quite rightly concerned about anything that they may see as intruding on their privacy, particularly with something as sensitive as their medical history and health information. It would not be acceptable to anybody in this parliament if legislation were introduced that did not reflect and honour the need to protect privacy wherever appropriate. That is why I am pleased that as a result of this bill the health minister has included a number of initiatives and a number of safeguards that go towards protecting privacy. Indeed, the bill was drafted after three privacy impact assessments had been done, and all of the issues and concerns raised as a result of those assessments have been included in this legislation. It is important to point out to those opposite and those in the broader community who will want to make a bigger issue about the privacy impact of this legislation than the significant and positive improvements that this reform will make that safeguards have been identified to ensure that minimal demographic information will be required to assign and obtain healthcare identifiers. The service itself will not be the retainer of all that medical information. There will be minimal information in order to simply provide the process needed for health providers accessing this.

No clinical information will be held by the service operator. Only authorised healthcare providers will be able to access the healthcare identifier service and obtain healthcare identifiers for their existing patients. The Medicare card and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs treatment card are to be used as tokens to obtain an individual’s healthcare identifier. So it is very clear that the minister has listened to any concerns about privacy and has included very important and appropriate initiatives within this bill to ensure that we allow this service to be introduced and we enable medical practitioners to access significant information to support them in their job of caring for and curing the Australian community, but not at the expense of the privacy of information.

I said it earlier, but, on that point, I do think that I need to address some of the doomsday pessimism coming from those opposite on this issue. We do live in a digital age. Almost every single thing we do these days depends on a computer or some form of new technology. Information these days is disseminated, accessed and spread by new technologies. People pay for all sorts of goods and services using their credit cards over the internet. We know that this is no longer a novelty. We know it is not some sort of new thing that we like the look of but should be a little bit scared about. This is actually the way that we conduct our day-to-day business, so I do not think we need to be too scared anymore of using the advantages that these new technologies provide to improve the services that we as a government are responsible for providing to the Australian community. We need to embrace technology and use it for better. There is no better example than this bill, which takes advantage of technology through the simplicity of a national database and a 16-digit number—that is all it needs to be—to make the difference between living a good and healthy life and finding suffering and pain as a result of a wrong diagnosis or a wrong treatment. I think the bill speaks for itself and I commend it to the parliament.