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Address to National e-Health Conference, Canberra.



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Senator Stephen Conroy Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy

National E-Health Conference Thursday 20 August, 2009 National Convention Centre, Canberra

Thank you and good morning

It is an absolute pleasure to be here this morning to talk to you about what the Government is doing to enable new innovation and delivery in health and aged care.

As demonstrated by the recent National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission report, there is a growing understanding of the importance of digital technologies in this field.

This conference helps demonstrate the fundamental role for ICT as we plan and develop the future of e-health systems.

It highlights the broad scope of innovation already underway and the potential for these developments to change the way with think about patient care.

There is little doubt that ICT, and particularly ICT supported by high-speed broadband, has the potential to revolutionise health and aged care.

This is reflected in the conference proceedings today, by leading sector representatives - such as the AMA - and by leading analysts of our internet-based future.

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Larry Smarr, one of the founding architects of the internet and Director of the Californian Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology.

Larry was in Australia to make a number of presentations on the future of service delivery supported by ICT and broadband.

He is a strong proponent of broadband as a tool to break down the geographic impediments to healthcare provision.

As Larry puts it: “Pretty soon you may not have to go into hospital; you will just have a doctor look at a video screen.”

He says Australia is leading the way when it comes to strategic thinking on the platforms to support the health and aged care revolution.

Specifically, he is talking about the National Broadband Network, this country’s largest ever nation-building infrastructure project and a vital foundation for our future economy and society.

As the AMA President, Dr Andrew Pesce said at the National Press Club on 21 July: “While all Australians will benefit from e-health initiatives, rural Australia is where new and innovative technology and information systems will pay off big time.”

The implications of the National Broadband Network and the advance of ICT in the health and aged care sectors are profound.

Already, in fledgling projects, we are starting to see the benefits of remote diagnosis and care, connecting patients in regional hospitals with specialists in capital cities.

Broadband tools are also providing important emotional welfare for young patients bed-ridden and separated from family and friends.

Early stage online file sharing and records access is helping regional doctors to become more efficient.

Hospital staff across the country have access to online training and resources.

All of these applications present great benefits for patient care and the efficiency of our health care systems.

But as our population continues to age, and Governments work to deal with a stressed hospital system, broadband will become an even more vital piece of the healthcare solution.

In-home care is a key way to deal with the challenge of an ageing population that expects independence.

PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that 20% of the population over 75 years old would benefit from in-home assistance supported by broadband.

Studies show that remote patient monitoring could reduce emergency room visits by up to 40 per cent and the length of hospital stays by up to 60 per cent.

These are significant figures that highlight the substantial economic benefits on offer for a country that invests properly in enabling infrastructure.

It is worth noting the views of iSOFT, the world’s second biggest health software provider.

In a recent Senate submission iSOFT predicted the National Broadband Network could pay for itself “twice over” thanks to the e-health benefits.

Specifically it suggests that integrated patient records across healthcare could save between eight and ten billion dollars a year - equating to a ten per cent saving in sector spending.

It says the NBN will resolve obstacles associated with connecting the health care industry today, such as large file transfers of CT scans and video conferencing.

It takes the view that this investment will assist industry to move towards a new ‘patient-centric’ model.

iSOFT also advocates the establishment of a specific network supported by the National Broadband Network designed uniquely to meet health sector needs.

This is exactly the kind of innovation the wholesale-only model of the NBN is intended to enable.

By delivering Australia’s first national wholesale-only open access network, the NBN will spur a wave of competition and innovation to meet the evolving needs of the entire economy.

This includes the health and aged care sectors.

But while it delivers this quantum-leap in enabling infrastructure, the Rudd Government is well aware of the need to think strategically about how we make the most of our investments.

In July, I launched Australia’s Digital Economy: Future Directions, a strategic roadmap for the development of our national digital economy.

The paper canvasses a range of issues pertinent to our digital future and the roles we all play in its design.

It recognises that digital economies are highly dynamic and they are primarily market-based phenomena.

This means that the transformation of our economy and our society into a digital economy is appropriately market and community led.

As I have said, the key role for Government is that of an enabler.

Government should enable individuals, households and businesses to take-up the opportunities raised by the digital economy.

In the e-health sphere, as the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission report has recommended, Government should also set a national policy, including a framework for open technical standards.

I will speak more about the report in a moment.

But I say to the health and aged care sector… grasp this opportunity with both hands - move now to advance e-health innovation and maximise the benefits made possible by the National Broadband Network.

Significantly, the ICT sector and health specialists are already driving development in this area.

Take the example of HealthCube, the award-winning aged care service provider based here in Canberra.

HealthCube has developed an IT-based solution for Comprehensive Medical Assessments, providing a platform for care workers to share patient information, collaborate on assessments and plan treatments.

At Sydney’s St Vincent's Hospital, doctors have provided supervised therapy for anxiety disorder patients over the internet.

Trials of the computerised cognitive behaviour therapy program have shown strong success rates.

They have also shown improving flexibility for patients while reducing the overall time required for treatment.

At Melbourne University last month I attended the launch of the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society.

Headed by Professor Rod Tucker, the Institute will play an important role, fostering Australia’s leadership in key areas such as remote health services using broadband.

The Institute intends to provide a supportive environment for inventive digital businesses and to become a hub for national and international researchers and innovators.

Meanwhile, National ICT Australia, our world-class ICT research facility and PhD program, is also leading innovation in the e-health field.

One project of particular interest is the Human Performance Monitoring project, which could deliver some serious benefits for the way we understand the human body.

The system uses wearable and implantable devices connected by wireless and backed by smart processors to assess physical performance.

Information such as heart rate and breathing is captured and analysed instantly, helping doctors to identify patterns.

NICTA is also working in close collaboration with several universities and research institutes to develop a bionic eye.

This development was identified in the Australia 2020 Summit as an innovative health technology that could improve the lives and well-being of all Australians.

Programs like this one are pivotal in the Government’s plans to encourage and enable Australians to maximise the benefits of broadband and digital technologies.

They also highlight the strong efforts being made by academia and industry to drive innovation in this area.

The benefits for the sector and for the nation are clear, including more efficient delivery, better patient welfare, improved training and development, and economic savings.

Indeed, the healthcare sector is expected to be one of the major new employment and income drivers in the emerging digital economy.

According to IBM and Access Economics, the adoption of smart technologies in health, as well as electricity, irrigation, transport and high-speed broadband, will add more than 70,000 jobs to the Australian economy in 2014 alone.

Specifically, an appropriately funded, broadband-enabled national electronic health records system could create 12,000 jobs and increase the net present value of GDP by six to thirteen billion dollars over ten years.

These are significant figures and further demonstrate the need to prepare for the connected future.

They are key reasons why the Government is investing in foundation infrastructure and projects to advance e-health development.

These projects provide further insight into the types of systems we can expect to be commonplace as the NBN becomes as reality.

One such service, funded by the Government’s Clever Networks program, is the Loddon Mallee Virtual Trauma and Critical Care Unit in Victoria.

Since March, trauma and critical care patients across the Loddon Mallee region have had access to specialist diagnosis and treatment thanks to virtual connections with major hospitals in Melbourne.

Specialists have instant access to the patient’s vital signs, clinical test results, high resolution x-rays, images and video allowing them to provide diagnosis and treatment advice.

This solution has obvious benefits for regional communities, helping overcome skills shortages, enhancing hospital capacity and improving patient welfare.

Another program funded under Clever Networks is the Livewire Online Community operated by the Starlight Children’s Foundation.

Livewire uses broadband to support a safe and secure online community that engages directly with young people.

It ensures that young Australians with serious illness, chronic health conditions, or disability, are connected to — and can participate in — the emerging digital world.

In a different way, broadband is assisting the delivery of health services in remote Western Australia.

The Bush MediVac project uses broadband to provide improved response for emergency services workers operating across the state.

Paramedics have remote access to medical records and specialists, allowing faster, personalised response to emergency situations.

Using broadband, this project is delivering potential benefits for 450,000 people across Western Australia.

These are exactly the kinds of projects the Rudd Government is interested in continuing to support through the new $60 million Digital Regions Initiative.

This program will fund projects that deliver high-quality digital applications for health, emergency services and education in regional, rural and remote Australia.

Projects will include but will not be contained to: • remote medical consultation, diagnosis and treatment, • technologies to improve emergency and disaster response, and • resources and services to improve educational opportunities.

Today, I am pleased to announce an invitation for expression of interest from innovators to deliver these projects.

The program aims for strong collaboration between the private sector and all levels of government and I look forward to seeing the proposals put forward.

Project rollouts are expected to begin in early 2010.

These are just some of the activities the Government is undertaking to ensure Australia enjoys the benefits of ICT-enabled healthcare advances.

The Government is committed to building the infrastructure foundation to support this emerging environment and working with industry and the community to drive development and take-up.

As you know, the Rudd Government has also made a strong commitment to address the pressures and changing demands that our health system faces.

One of our first tasks in Government was establishing the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission.

It is worth noting the focus for e-health considerations in the Commission report announced by the Prime Minister and Health Minister in late July.

As Nicola Roxon has said, a health system that delivers on our expectations in the years to come must be built around the needs of the patient.

I know all of you in the room today understand the potential for broadband and ICT to meet this goal.

The National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission report makes a number of key recommendations related to e-health.

These include proposals for every Australian to have a personal electronic record by 2012 and for key patient data be transferrable between hospitals and health and aged care providers.

As I mentioned earlier, it also includes the accelerated development of a national policy and open technical standards framework for e-health, and to extend e-health education throughout the sector.

The report makes the strong point about the importance of the National Broadband Network for Australians, particularly those in isolated communities, to realise the benefits of electronic health data.

Significantly, the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission report makes the point that health reform is everybody’s business.

This is in-keeping with the recommendations of the Government’s digital economy future directions paper, which makes clear that to capitalise on the economy-wide opportunities of broadband, we all have a role to play.

As I described today, this is already the case when it comes to e-health.

We are already seeing the emergence of a wide range of e-health applications and services based on existing technologies and highlighting future potential.

We can observe doctors in remote communities, such as on the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia, using broadband to transfer medical files and access records.

We are seeing the academic community and industrial partners come together to ensure Australia becomes an e-health development centre of excellence.

The Government is also giving close consideration to all of the recommendations put forward by the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission and will be responding in the months to come.

Clearly, there is a strong understanding and growing recognition of the capacity for digital technologies and broadband to improve our health and aged care services.

These innovations offer huge benefits for quality of life and the economy of care provision.

It has been my pleasure to be with you this morning and I wish you all the best with the remainder of the conference.

Thank you and good morning.