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Raising standards to save lives: Klaus Veil

It can be difficult to imagine a clear connection between someone clinging to life in an emergency room and the interoperability standards governing the use of healthcare technology.

Yet for Associate Professor Klaus Veil, one of the nation’s leading experts on interoperability standards and long time ehealth educator, the link is too important to overlook.

“When I moved here in the eighties I quickly noticed a cavalier approach to healthcare technology standards, considered by many as a hassle or at best a necessary evil,” Prof. Veil explained. “This contrasted with my previous work in Germany and Switzerland which had for a long time been very standards oriented.”

The need to improve how healthcare data could be exchanged in the Australian setting was crystallised during Prof. Veil’s tenure as chief information officer of Macquarie Health Corporation in the nineties.

He observed a number of inefficiencies in the transfer of information between hospitals, pathology labs and medical centres, and it got him thinking about the entire health system.

Since then, Prof. Veil has worked in a leadership capacity with the international standards and interoperability collaborative Health Level Seven (HL7) International and its Australian affiliate. This work has seen an increase in data sharing across the Australian healthcare system.

Honored last month as the first Fellow of HL7 International in the southern hemisphere, he said the paradox of the endeavour has been the mismatch between its actual value to the health system and the voluntary basis of the work itself.

“Altruism and working for the common good has been the necessary platform for contributing to interoperability standards and seeing them adopted in Australia and globally. Commercially driven attempts to say ‘this is the way to go and everybody should do it’ tend to fail,” he remarked.

Prof. Veil said attitudes regarding the importance of implementing standards in Australia has come a long way over the past decade. As always in healthcare, evidence showing improved outcomes for providers and patients alike has provided important momentum.

On that front he said one of the most important studies was the 1999 Institute of Medicine report To Err Is Human: Building a safer health system, which demonstrated up to 98,000 hospital patients in the USA alone die each year from avoidable mistakes - many of them basic communication errors.

Thankfully, Prof. Veil noted the past decade has seen the conversation move from whether interoperability standards and ehealth are worth the effort to discussing implementation challenges such as as how to make sure systems are compliant with the increasing number of ehealth standards.

With plenty of work still to be done, Prof. Veil is concerned about the fact few of the younger ehealth experts in Australia are willing to join the standards community and continue the march towards a healthcare system that’s unencumbered by siloed information and errors at the point of care.

“It’s an exciting and vibrant group of people genuinely interested in a better future for healthcare,” he said.