Old dogs old tricks : The real cost of frequently rebranding govt health agencies

9 minute read

Renaming something doesn't fix it or make us forget. Only fixing it fixes it Sussan, says our best marketer


A new agency has been formed within the Department of Health (DoH) to address the burgeoning complexity and cost associated with renaming government based initiatives or programs.It will be called the Health Acronym Renaming Disorder Agency (HARDA)

The move comes hard on (no pun intended) the heels of the announcement last week of the appointment of the first chair of the Australian Digital Health Agency (ADHA), previously the National Electronic Health Transition Authority(NEHTA).

NEHTA still technically exists until July 1, but for some reason had been renamed in the interim the Australian Commission of e-Health (ACoEH), apparently in someone’s haste to ditch the whiff pervading the NEHTA legacy . While ACoEH existed its formation into ADHA was overseen (we kid you not) by the Digital Health Implementation Taskforce Steering Committee (DHITSC), which we think  they should have called DITCTHELOT (no acronym).

How much is all this rebranding costing and why are we doing it? The rebranding of the Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record (PCEHR) to MyHealthRecord was said to cost multi-millions of dollars (‘multi’ is a big spectrum of potential cost). I guess when the PCEHR program was universally felt to fail at a cost of $1.2 billion another couple of ‘multi-million’ isn’t going to hurt. Or is it?

DoH don’t have a great track record renaming things. And it seems to have started way back in 1987 when some bright spark decided to rename the whole department from Department of Health to the Department of Community Services and Health (DCSH). Until 1987, DoH had existed as that name since it’s formation in 1921. Since 1987 the department has renamed itself no less than 7 times until 2013 when it returned to its original DoH from the Department of Health and Ageing (DHA). For the pedants all the intervening acronyms were: DHAC, DHFS, DHSH, DHHLGCS (guess this one to win a bottle of wine), DHHCS and CHSH.

Is it possible that someone started in DoH in 1987 and still resides somewhere deep in the bowels of organisation orchestrating name changes to the departments and agencies at whim?

Another now famous set of dubious name changes include the Divisions of General Practice (DoGP) into Medicare Locals (no acronym apparently – yay!) in 2011 and then Primary Healthcare Networks (PHN) last year.

One thing HARDA will surely be looking into is why DoH doesn’t seem to do much due diligence before they come up with new names. Both MyHealthRecord (originally mooted as myHR) and Primary Health Networks ran into reasonably serious legal trouble over naming rights with private companies at launch. In the case of myHR, a giant financial services company had trademarked the name 15 years earlier.

The PHN naming debacle is still going with Primary Healthcare seeking only last week to appeal a loss in the Supreme court on sole ownership of the name ‘Primary Healthcare’. At the time PHNs launched the CEOs of all 31 were warned by DoH not to use the phrase “Primary Health Networks” 48 hours before their launch. “Oh OK, we’ll just wing it boss….errh, what are we calling ourselves now?” So much for all that stationary and marketing material ( although they may have just stored it all we guess until they got the all clear from legal – they’re still waiting).

TMR isn’t entirely sure why Primary Healthcare (the company) wants any more publicity at the moment by the way– their CEO just got raided by ASIC and according to press reports last Friday was implicated by Leighton executive, Stephen Sasse, in accounting offences committed when he was the chief financial officer of Leighton and might be indicted soon on quite serious criminal charges. If that happens all 31 of the PHN CEOs might  take it on themselves to rebrand immediately without reference back to DoH.

TMR did a little due diligence of its own on the ADHA name and was surprised to find that DoH hasn’t even registered it as a business name. I guess that wouldn’t be a problem after the whole Primary Healthcare litigation saga. Registering the name was going to set them back as much $99 so you can understand it from the cost aspect. And if anyone out there feels the urge, they can if they like get every domain name available for the agency, bar of course .gov.au., for about $37.

Still available – maybe Primary Healthcare can buy the business name and get a win finally

It’s not just when something starts to smell like the PCEHR did before someone decided to give it a makeover that DoH resorts to this odd tactic of renaming stuff and hoping all will be changed or forgotten. There are lots of subtle and confusing changes as well which we feel could only come from some ill thinking soul who is clearly “imbedded” in DoH and working for a stationary and business card company on the side.

For instance, with the change to PCEHR we were supposed to drop the term’ e-health’ and replace it with ‘digital health’. Huh? Is that explained anywhere? Last time I looked e-health was a reasonably universal and global term. And not to be petty but just because your committee doesn’t have an ‘e’ in it – Digital Health Implementation Taskforce Steering Committee (DHITSC) – that’s no reason to get shirty and make some group like the Australian Commission of e-Health (ACoEH) – change its name to the Australian Digital Health Agency (ADHA). That costs a lot of money guys (and gals). And then you think you can just say “hey, stop saying e-health now…it’s so yesterday”.

Which I guess is the reason why some numb-nut has decided to change ePIP (Practice Incentive Program eHealth Incentive) into Practice Incentive Program Digital Health Incentive (PIPDHI) . Oh yeah, get rid of that nasty ‘e’ and your future is sure to change.

Looks like Sussan Ley at least had a try at getting the commercial URL

Ok, the odd change we could probably live with – PCEHR was a mouthful anyway. But changing the lot is confusing and very expensive and if you talked to a real brand expert – TMR’s sister publication is B&T, a venerable 65 year old media and marketing brand, so we know a few – you’d be horrified at the opportunity cost loss of changing names this many times so badly.

One of Australia’s best marketers (he’s a New Zealander) Andy Lark, currently CMO of Xero – Australia’s (New Zealand’s really) digital darling accounting software group and fastest growing cloud based company, has a bit of sage advice that applies to DoH’s marketing department.

“Marketing is propelling many of us towards obsolescence. And products themselves are what needs to be focused on, not throwing moolah at marketing in the hope it will help a bad product.

“Marketing, largely becomes a crutch for product mediocrity …we’d rather spend on marketing, than fixing our core product.

“We as marketers are so focused on the wrong thing, we’re focused on media, creative and that sort of stuff, we’re forgetting the heart of what we do is products and services.

“The tax for product mediocrity is a high one if we choose to pay.

“Marketers have to become makers . Brands will be largely built in the future by doing, and you have to shift the focus to where we marketers have to own the product.

“But in most places, marketers have nothing to do with the product”.

Australia’s greatest marketer (he’s from New Zealand) Andy Lark, says, marketing is just a crutch for bad product these days

Ring any bells?

But if DoH is going to persist with renaming things as a means of achieving change they should at least take a leaf from the Pharma industry and come up with some really aspirational stuff like the Pharmas always do for their big drug trials. Im sure the no one would mind if DoH borrowed say HOPE or COURAGE for the PCEHR , for instance. For the new NEHTA maybe RENAISSANCE (sticking with the ‘hope’ theme), for PHNs, AWESOME of course (which GPs generally are) and for ePIP maybe EPIC or even VICTORY (as it’s the only program that seems to have actually worked over the years). We could even rename the Federal health minister Sussan Ley BATMAN if we wanted to really get into the swing of things. Those Pharmas really know their marketing.


At the end of the day this renaming stuff really has a ‘same dog different fleas’ feel to it. According to DoH  of course the changing of the fleas is really the big deal here. Take NEHTA for instance. They are changing from mostly  government based fleas to a mix of private sector and government fleas when they start ADHA. They have an interesting new Chairflea in Jim Birch (although he was on the NEHTA board) who is determined to get a great CEO flea on board.

Even the effervescent Dr David Moore on his health IT Blog has some optimism in this respect. In a recent post he suggests that while the new flea line up is missing private sector e-Health and clinical flea expertise,  “the last hope is the quality and experience of the CEO – who is yet to be appointed. An inspired choice could make all the difference – time will tell! I note … the new chair says he is said to be ‘utterly committed’ to making the myHR work. Given it needs to be scrapped, or at least fundamentally re-designed so as to be unrecognisable from what we have now, that will be quite a trick, but he had to say that to get the job I bet! “

I don’t think anyone really cares if we call all these DoH dogs Fido or Nigel, we just want someone to make it all work please (and care that it works as Mr Lark suggests). That is the only thing that will get your brand names feeling and looking good, evil person who resides deep in the bowels of DoH. Changing names is and old trick (for old dogs).

Stop it now please and focus on the product and service.

PS. If I got any of these acronyms wrong or the function of a department or agency, please don’t write in.  Who could blame me?





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