Interoperability: a personal view

By Bettina McMahon, Chief Operating Officer and Executive General Manager for Government and Industry Collaboration and Adoption.

Northcott is a not-for-profit organisation that provides services and innovation for people living with disability. Today Northcott is one of the largest not-for-profit disability service organisations in Australia and provides empowering, personalised services to over 13,500 people with disability, their families and carers each year.

Northcott CEO Kerry Stubbs recently invited me to visit Northcott’s offices to see how people with disability receive personalised services and how this lines up (or not) with health services.

As I meet with case managers, occupational therapists, speech therapists and accommodation managers, it becomes clear to me that an extraordinary amount of effort goes into creating seamless services for their customers. When it comes to interactions with the health sector, the head of operations Lee tells me there is great opportunity to share information between a person’s healthcare providers and Northcott’s service providers. “Right now, there are few formal information flows between all the people providing health and care services to a person with disability. Often it’s up to the customer or their family to pass this information along, and if they’re ill or under stress, this just adds to the pressure a family is facing.”

His comments remind me of the human impact of a system that is not connected.

This lack of interoperability exists at every level; within and between hospitals, primary care providers and disability services, across public and private providers, and across regions, states and territories. While people such as those in Northcott are doing their best to mask the inadequacies of our systems, we have a responsibility to them – and to their customers and families – to do better.

The way we look at delivering interoperability warrants a different approach and refreshed thinking. It needs to focus on services first; who is receiving the service and what is their experience? Who is providing the service and what do they expect from ‘the system’ to enable them to provide excellent, personalised care?

The Australian Digital Health Agency has called out interoperability as a priority of work. We’re starting with specific programs that focus on secure electronic messaging between healthcare providers, safer medicines, and greater sharing of pathology and diagnostic imaging results.

We are collaborating with government, private and industry players, suppliers, providers and users to co-design and co-produce products with their commitment to implementation and adoption. We believe that a co-ordinated approach will keep consumer needs at the centre of our work and the broader objectives of interoperability to get traditionally disconnected systems to work together.

Is it reasonable to strive for perfection in interoperability? Probably, but the reality is that solutions will never be perfect and we need to be open to hearing problems as they arise and be prepared to address these problems together with industry, healthcare professionals and consumers. And it is critical that we don’t only focus on the technology aspects of the interoperability solution.