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Monday, 13 July 2009 12:45

Privacy fight shaping for eHealth

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The battle lines are being drawn for the biggest privacy fight since Joe Hockey’s 2005 smartcard proposal, this time focused on Rudd Government plans for a unique citizen identifier number in the health sector.

There is nothing like a unique identifier number to heat the blood of privacy advocates everywhere: Bob Hawke found out with his Australia Card proposal; Joe Hockey got a taste through the ultimately doomed ‘Not Australia Card’ smartcard; and Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon may be about to learn just how loud the privacy lobby can get.

Roxon and her State counterparts announced plans for national consultations on the legislative framework for the “national healthcare indentifier numbers” that will underpin Australia’s eHealth system.

Health is widely acknowledged as the biggest ICT hairball in Government – at any level. The potential savings that could be delivered through an electronic health system encompassing governments, healthcare providers, patients and healthcare centres are enormous.

In opening the consultation, Nicola Roxon preferred to focus on the potential of the Individual Healthcare Identifier’s (IHI) potential for saving lives as her opening salvo.

Mismatching of patients with their records and medical results is a documented problem for the health system. There is a clear link between avoidable patient deaths and poor medical records management.

The IHI initiative goes further than Joe Hockey’s plan, which would have seen a Not Australia Card issued to every Medicare card holder – and there are surprisingly large numbers of people who do not have a Medicare card.

Under the Roxon system, every Australian resident will be issued with an IHI, with the system managed initially by Medicare and containing only information that clearly identifies the person. Today’s announcement did not broach to controversial issue of biometric identifiers.

Ms Roxon said the drafting of legislation build on the recommendations in the Australian Law Reform Commission’s report on its review of Australian privacy laws, including health privacy protections.

The Australian Privacy Foundation is sceptical, and launched its campaign against any suggestion of a unique identifier number last week, before the IHI plan was formally announced.

APF Health sub-committee chair Juanita Fernando said in a letter to the Minister last week that the indentifier is viewed with alarm. She said the Australian Government’s record of transparency in eHealth governance and decision-making had been poor for many years.

Ms Fernando said until an accepted eHealth records privacy and personal health information security framework had been established in which patient control was the central principle, any discussion about medical records was premature.

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