The Ministry of Health's plans to make participation in the National Electronic Health Records (NEHR) compulsory are long overdue.
The system, started four years ago, already has medical information on all public sector patients. But without the inclusion of patient information from the private sector, it is like a three-legged chair.
This is because about 80 per cent of primary care is provided by general practitioners in the private sector. Also, a significant number of people see private specialists for their chronic problems. Should they land in a public hospital's emergency department, their medical records would not be readily available to doctors there. Tests that had been done previously might have to be redone before treatment can be administered, wasting precious time that could affect the person's recovery.
Similarly, while the NEHR is open to the private sector to access patient information, most do not do so. There are valid reasons why the vast majority of private hospitals and clinics are not yet part of the NEHR. They include cost and concerns over patient privacy. But these are not insurmountable problems. The very expensive framework is already in place. It would be a waste of the investment not to make full use of the available technology.
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While the Health Ministry should not bulldoze its way through private sector concerns, it should also not delay the implementation unduly. It has been in discussion with various stakeholders since last year, and plans to have a public consultation by the year end. This could and should be sped up.
The benefits are considerable, and it would be unfair to patients to deny them this enhancement to their treatment because of delays due to bureaucracy. Older people tend to suffer from a multitude of chronic ailments. The NEHR allows a patient's various doctors to get a comprehensive handle on his conditions and medications swiftly, so they can treat him with confidence that they are not missing any pieces of the puzzle.