Giving health a tech checkup

Australia is not going to be able to fund the population's medical care bills in the decade ahead unless major modernisation happens in the health sector, and in addition to technology, it's going to require major cultural change.

Productivity Spectator

Lurking behind every federal and state budget for the last decade has been the apparently unsolvable long term heath problem. How are we going to provide and fund medical care for the aging baby boomers?

The 2012-13 federal budget was no exception. But two days later on May 10, 2012 I bring Australia the first signs of good news. And in coming weeks I hope to bring you more health good news as part of our productivity series emphasising collaboration.

I know that what is happening in Europe has all our readers on the edge of their chairs but take a break and watch the video above, prepared by our Productivity Spectator editor Jackson Hewett, which shows how Barwon public hospital (near Geelong) has transformed the service doctors can bring to patients using the iPad.

As you saw, doctors were able provide much better care to patents both in rural areas and in the hospital. Barwon is emphasising better service but with that better service comes lower operating costs and better productivity.

A year ago I successfully had my prostate removed and I benefitted from the technology advances in operating procedures, including the use of a robot. And the care and help I received from hard working doctors and nurses could not be faulted. I was very grateful.

But the wards were operating with paper based systems that other industries abandoned decades ago. You saw highly skilled professionals using the most modern equipment in an operating system not much better than Noah had on the arc. The professionals seemed to be spending endless time on paperwork and what seemed to be duplication of effort.

In Barwon hospital they have linked their doctors to modern systems – in this case the iPad. A number of other hospitals are beginning to link nurses to similar modern operating systems and are experiencing the same increase in care and resulting lower costs.

This week I was yarning to Rohan Mead, the CEO of health fund Australian Unity, and he believes that the new systems can enable information to be cross checked in ways not possible with paper, picking up problems much faster and reducing errors. It will free up the professionals to spend more time with patients instead of doing paperwork. No one knows exactly how the better service/lower cost ratio will work out but we could be looking at a 20 per cent reduction in hospital operating costs.

I will return to this subject many times because we are not going to be able to fund our medical care bills in the decade ahead unless this modernisation movement takes hold, but it's early days.

As every nurse and doctor in the country will tell you this is not a simple process. The technology systems can be expensive and require extensive training of staff – not easy when staff are flat out providing medical care using the existing outdated systems.

Accordingly, many doctors and nurses will resist the changes and, as we have seen, understandably, nurses are fighting for the patient ratios which are required using the present systems. But the average age of nurses is rising and unless there is a breakthrough the community will not be able to afford current care standards let alone improve them.

Good medicine will only be available to the very rich. Middle and lower-income Australia will struggle. What is happening at Barwon Health does not solve all the problems but it is a clear start and other hospitals will learn from both Barwon and other early adopters.