Many Australian health organisations still fax their reports to general practitioners but the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners is urging them to embrace secure digital communications. Immediate past president Dr Frank Jones explains why it’s time for the fax machine to rest in peace.

For over a decade, the majority of general practitioners (GPs) have been equipped to communicate digitally.

“This has enabled them to increase the quality, safety and efficiency of care they provide,” says Dr Frank Jones, the immediate past president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP). “It seems somewhat bizarre that many Australian healthcare organisations still use fax machines as their primary means of communicating important documents.”

The RACGP is calling for all healthcare services and government agencies that communicate with general practices to eliminate paper forms and faxes within the next three years and to replace them with highly-secure digital alternatives.

“It’s now a national priority for government healthcare agencies, tertiary and all other healthcare providers to move into the 21st century by embracing secure digital communications,” says Dr Jones. “The fax has served us well but its time is over. Fax machine, rest in peace.”

Multiple doctors

Patients often need to interact with many different healthcare professionals or organisations in a number of physical locations. GPs are usually required to manage information from these disparate sources and therefore rely on other healthcare providers for details about diagnosis, treatments, management plans and outcomes.

“Lack of timely communication between healthcare services and general practices can result in medical errors that could cause severe injury or even unexpected death,” says Dr Jones. “The benefits associated with secure electronic communications will be enormous for both patients and practices, which is why adoption of the technology should be prioritised by the entire healthcare sector.”

Incompatible systems

Most health services and government agencies do have some form of electronic communication in place but the majority of these systems are incompatible with those used by GPs, Dr Jones explains.

As a result, GPs and their staff often have to transfer information manually from the surgery’s clinical or administrative systems to paper-based or online forms. This information must then be uploaded and transmitted online, sent by fax or emailed using standard and unsecured platforms. Letters, reports and requests from other health services that arrive at the surgery in hard copy or image formats must also be manually scanned and added to each patient’s clinical record.

As well as increasing risk to patients, this manual transfer is labour intensive and time consuming.

“Most organisations fail to consider the workload implications or the costs involved in managing these information transfers safely and reliably,” says Dr Jones. “The inefficiencies of current processes create a heavy burden for GPs, diverting their time away from providing essential medical care for patients.”

Dr Jones also points out that documents have more value when GPs can use their general practice software to look for key words and phrases.

“Faxed or mailed reports which are scanned into clinical records and saved as an image are not easy to search,” he says.

A realistic time frame

Dr Jones believes that all healthcare services and government agencies should be able to communicate via, or integrate with, the technology GPs already have in place.

“Systems that meet the needs of both GPs and their staff should be the preferred and default method of communication,” he says.

He also believes that three years is a realistic timeframe.

“The implementation and evolution of the National Health Services Directory is now making this achievable,” he says. “This position is also consistent with the Australian Government’s Digital Transformation Office agenda, which is focused on creating a user-centred digital approach to ensure that all government services are easy to use, and that communication can be completed entirely electronically.”

Three principles of electronic communication

The RACGP supports the following principles for electronic communication between general practice and other healthcare agencies:

1. Faster form filling All electronic documents and forms should be completed as far as possible using data and information held in the clinical information system.

2. A single point of contact All communications should be sent and received via the general practice’s electronic clinical software system.

3. Best practice security All electronic communications with external healthcare providers and agencies should align with best practice data privacy handling principles to protect patient privacy and confidentiality.

For more information and updates on e-health and electronic communication, visit www.racgp.org.au/your-practice/ehealth

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