The Auditor-General sees positive effects flowing from the use of patient portals in healthcare in New Zealand, including improved access to care.
In a report titled Ministry of Health: Supporting the implementation of patient portals presented to the House of Representatives today, the Auditor-General says the Ministry of Health is supporting the use of emerging technology to help people use services more easily.
The use of patient portals is consistent with the New Zealand Health Strategy 2016’s goal of giving people access to their own health information and encouraging them to be more involved in decisions about their treatment, the report says.
Patient portals are secure websites that allow people to interact with their doctor and access their personal health information, such as lab results and doctors’ notes.
Private companies develop and run the portals, and primary health organisations and general medical practices buy access to them.
The Auditor-General looked at how well the Ministry supported primary health organisations and general practices to implement patient portals.
As at 31 March, just over 50 per cent of general practices were offering such portals, and about nine per cent of patients over the age of 18 were registered to use them.
The Ministry gathered support from, and worked co-operatively with, organisations throughout the health sector, including the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners.
This support included helping the Ministry to identify, and then working to address, concerns that some doctors had about patient portals.
"In our view, how the Ministry worked with the health sector contributed to this increased uptake of patient portals," the report says. "This is a good example of different parts of the health sector working together to achieve a common goal."
It also noted there is an opportunity for the Ministry to provide added value by collecting statistical information that would enable it to demonstrate the benefits of patient portals.
The Ministry is also part of a group that contributes to a "strong framework of privacy rules and rights, standards, and guidelines", the Auditor-General says.
The standards includes a section on cloud computing which patient portals often use to store information, the report says.
"Before 2016, the Ministry's policy on cloud computing was that personal health information could not be stored or processed outside of New Zealand by a public cloud service without a Ministry-granted exemption.
"In early 2016, the Ministry allowed health organisations to use public cloud services without obtaining an exemption, provided the services had been approved by the Ministry as fit for purpose."
In July 2016, Cabinet actively promoted the use of public cloud services for government agencies.
The Ministry worked with the Government Chief Information Officer to update its approach to the use of cloud-based services. In April 2017, they released a joint document advising of the changes.
"The Health Information Governance Guidelines reflect this change in policy," the Auditor-General says. "The guidelines state that health organisations can store personal health information in the cloud as long as they carry out a risk assessment before doing so and are satisfied with the resulting risk profile."