Peak digital health agency a bigger disaster than the Census?

4 minute read

Labor shoots first on Tim Kelsey's ADHA appointment, but they may end up shooting us taxpayers in the foot


Labor shoots first on the Tim Kelsey ADHA appointment, but they may end up shooting themselves (and the taxpayer) in the foot

As loathe as I am to admit to reading the Sunday Telegraph (I was stuck in a café with nothing else to read – honest), they had one story yesterday about the healthcare sector which was certainly an eye-catcher: they reported that the appointment of Tim Kelsey last week to head up Australia’s Digital Health Agency, which has as a key function the implementation of electronic medical records for all Australians, “has raised the spectre of another census-night-style debacle”.

To be fair the paper attributed the view to the Labor Party’s spokeswomen for health, Catherine King, who they quoted as saying in response to the appointment of Kelsey: “After the census debacle it is hard to place any faith in the government’s judgment on these issues.”

I’m not sure Ms King is up-to-date on the status of the electronic medical records project. Surely spending $1.2 billion on electronic medical records so far, and not getting anywhere, ranks already as a bigger disaster than the Census breakdown, which by all reports will only cost the government something like $400 million in repair work.

To say the appointment of Kelsey is going to see us go another round, is surely a stretch at this stage. After all, Kelsey only starts in the role this week, and if you don’t selectively publish his CV, as it seems like Labor and the Sunday Telegraph have done here, Kelsey is a potentially inspired,  albeit left-field pick for this job.

If you look at Kelsey’s overall CV, he’s not your typical government ‘safe hands’ conservative pick. But the government has to take a few punts now, given how badly they’ve done thus far on this project. Kelsey has been very successful privately as an entrepreneur, and publically in running parts of the NHS for the English government. He was so well thought of by Telstra, he was brought to Australia as a key senior executive to add momentum to Telstra Health, and that would not have been cheap. There was even talk he was  brought out with the intention of giving him the top job in that organisation in the not too distant future. That he is abandoning the Telstra Health ship so early in what many believed was going to be a shining career there (he’d only been in that job seven months), speaks probably more of the mess he found when he got to Telstra Health, than anything else. We’re probably very lucky he was close by and said yes to the government’s recruiters.

That the Sunday Telegraph and Labor chose to isolate only those parts of his CV which are somewhat controversial – his role in a stuff-up on privacy on some patient records while national director for Patients and Information for the NHS, for example – is rough to say the least.

Australia’s electronic medical record program has so far been a disaster, and not much in overseas experience of the implementation of such systems suggests that the job is going to be in the least bit easy moving forward. Time will tell, but Kelsey has a rare combination of experience and some success in this difficult world.

The appointment of Kelsey is the least of our problems, and potentially, he is the beginning of ‘the solution’. To come out and bag him out before he even starts is cynical politics at best. At worst, if the cynicism has effect, it could end up costing taxpayers even more grief than the electronic medical record already has provided, if that is even possible.

Of course, he might fail, but you could easily argue the degree of difficulty for the job he’s taken, with the remit he’s been given so far,  is somewhere in the high nines out of 10. Digital health strategy at the government level in this country is a mess.

See TMR’s open letter to Tim Kelsey in this week’s issue of the newspaper and on our website on Wednesday if you’re interested in the issues Kelsey is likely to face in his new role.

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