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By Andrew Leigh - posted Thursday, 15 March 2012

Recently, octogenarian Pat Douglass was the first patient in the ACT and southern New South Wales to sign up for an eHealth record, at Calvary Hospital. Calvary is one of 12 national projects that are pre-testing elements of the personally controlled electronic health record system.

People sometimes talk about eHealth in technical terms, but when I spoke to parliament about it a couple of weeks ago, I found that the best way of understanding eHealth was to realise Mrs Douglass' experiences of being treated without electronic health records.

Mrs Douglass, who still lives independently, had a fall in the street near her home and acquired a brain injury. After her fall, Mrs Douglass was confined to hospital for 10 weeks. After undergoing rehabilitation she returned home, but none of her regular doctors knew that she had been in hospital. None of her doctors knew about her injury or how she had been progressing. Similarly, the hospital was unaware of Mrs Douglass' regular health requirements. Any information on normal medicines or routine check-ups that Mrs Douglass might have required during her time in hospital was not available to the doctors at Calvary.


Mrs Douglass told me that she thought it was a bit ridiculous that none of her doctors could share information about her previous conditions or about her current conditions. She wanted all of her doctors who look after different aspects of her health to be fully informed.

With eHealth records, this will be a thing of the past. Electronic health records will allow patients (if they choose) to share information with a range of health professionals. For example, your GP will be able to know what your physiotherapist has recommended. Your chiropractor will understand the different types of treatments you are undertaking. You will not need to explain your allergies, medicines and immunisations every time you see a different doctor.

For example, a Calvary eHealth record will include the following information: name, date of birth, address, contact details, allergies, immunisations and the medicines the patient is currently taking; a summary of each consultation; medical conditions; referrals; specialist letters; discharge summaries following hospital admissions; diagnostic reports, such as X-ray results; and shared care plans agreed between GPs and participating healthcare professionals.

eHealth records are particularly important for young adults who have moved away from home and are finding a new GP. They are important for older Australians, because we tend to have more complex health needs the older we get. And they are important to people with lower levels of literacy, who might have more difficulty relaying information provided by one health provider to another.

Each year, thousands of people are admitted into hospitals due to medication errors. Better sharing of information will reduce these sorts of unnecessary admissions. In the case of Mrs Douglass, Calvary Hospital was unaware that she was taking additional medications and needed to see her specialist during that time. If Mrs Douglass had had an eHealth record, all that information would have been available to her doctors. Under eHealth, patients will spend less time explaining and more time getting the care they need from their health professionals.

eHealth records will be an opt-in system, meaning that no-one will be forced to have an eHealth record. Records will be personally controlled and managed by patients, who can decide who they show their information to, including family members. For example, Mrs Douglass might have allowed her children to share her information in the event of an adverse health occurrence such as her fall.


Given the benefits of eHealth, you would have thought that it would enjoy bipartisan support in the federal parliament. Yet the Liberals went to the last election with no clear plan or idea for eHealth. These days, the Liberals support the federal government's eHealth legislation, but Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey nominates the Department of Health and Ageing as one of the first on the chopping board for his 12,000 public service redundancies. If you gut the Health Department, it's pretty difficult to know who's going to manage eHealth.

After hearing Pat Douglass's story, I decided to opt in, and signed up for my own eHealth record. If you'd like to do the same, just go to and download a form. Like Mrs Douglass, you'll find that all of your doctors will suddenly be able to speak to one another – which means you can stop playing courier and go back to being a patient.

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This article was first published in The Canberra Times on 12 March 2012.

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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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