As Australians weigh up whether to opt-out of the My Health Record before the extend deadline of January 31, they're being reminded that there could be benefits for those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
My Health Record will mean better medical care and fewer hospital admissions for people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities (CALD), according to the national group representing Australia’s ethnic communities.
Mohammad Al-Khafaji, acting chief executive officer of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) said the record can bolster communication between medical professionals and people with low levels of English proficiency, leading to better health outcomes.
“My Health Record is a tool that no doubt will be a potential lifesaver for many CALD Australians, especially those with limited support and limited English,” he told SBS News.
According to the 2016 census, 21 per cent of Australians speak a language other than English at home.
He said Australians from CALD communities face a number of barriers to accessing medical care, including an unawareness of available translating services, a lack of information in community languages and actual or perceived racism among medical practitioners.
“GPs are often the gatekeepers to specialised services and the lack of awareness of this means that people may not access the services they need - in particular, if interpreting services are not used,” he said.
But according to Mr Al-Khafaji, having a record digitally accessible in one place without the need for extensive verbal communication will lead to better-informed treatment decisions, particularly for carers, older people and those with lower levels of English proficiency.
He also added that for those who travel overseas frequently, it is “reassuring to know they can access My Health Record at any place, at any time”.
Opt out deadline approaches
Despite the benefits, Mr Al-Khafaji said it was important for all Australians to know they have an option to opt-out if they have concerns.
The Australian Digital Health Agency, the body tasked with implementing My Health Record, said they partnered with FECCA to communicate with CALD communities across Australia - including through in-language resources.
A spokesperson also said the agency worked with the Settlement Council of Australia to communicate information about the scheme to recently arrived migrants and refugees.
The extended deadline for opting-out of the scheme is this week.
After January 31, an estimated 17 million Australians will have their record automatically created.
Dr Chris Moy, GP and Clinical Reference Lead for My Health Record, said CALD Australians can face difficulties communicating their medical histories to a health provider.
He said this is not only due to a breakdown in communication, but because the fear of the process can mean they delay seeking medical help.
“My Health Record is a game changer in providing a health provider with immediate access to key information about the individual’s medical history and helps support CALD Australians to overcome barriers of language and improves their continuity of care,” he said.
“It will reduce harm caused by medication errors because people and their healthcare providers will have access to important information about medicines and allergies.
“This could save your life in an emergency.”
These arguments for the scheme come as the debate around whether the scheme will be functional continue.
President of the Doctors Reform Society and specialist Dr Tim Woodruff told SBS News that while the purpose of the record is to improve patient care, as it stands, it will not be effective.
Concerns about inaccuracies
He said because the system relies on GPs, hospital staff and specialists to upload documents to the record, a lack of time and training mean medical professionals will not do the additional work - unless they see the record as “useful for their patients”.
“There is a huge amount of work for the implementation authority to do, to address these issues and make the record worthwhile unless the GP is super dedicated and sees an immediate benefit and has the time to do that,” he said.
“If you don’t have people using the record, you don’t have an accurate record.”
Despite what he sees as flaws in its implementation, Dr Woodruff believes a system like My Health Record could be extremely valuable for CALD communities and beyond - if executed correctly.
There’s also been significant public concern about possible security vulnerabilities in the scheme, but president of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering High Bradlow believes these risks have been overblown.
“The benefits do absolutely outweigh the risks. Especially if you put the risks in the context of the risks that exist for privacy today, which are not great,” he said.
“Doctor's receptionists have got access to your health records. And there are many human beings who have access to paper health records. So, the risks, I think, are somewhat vastly exaggerated."
Mr Al-Khafaji said when it came to data sharing and security, it is “essential that there is a process of trust-building between CALD consumers and the government’.
This was the second time the opt-out date for the scheme had been extended due to concerns with the system.
As of October 2018, more than 1.147 million people had opted out according to the latest data released by the Australian Digital Health Agency.
Meanwhile, since the beginning of the opt-out period in July 2018, almost half a million Australians have chosen to opt-in.
“Like any new system there will be some technical issues that need to be resolved to ensure confidence in the system by consumers and carers,” Mr Al-Khafaji said.