Tom Bowden was a young Telecom ideas man when he was asked in 1993 to help set up HealthLink, a public-private partnership designed to improve communication between GPs and other parts of the health system.
Since then, HealthLink has been integrating or connecting the computer systems of health care practitioners so they can talk with each other and share information securely. GPs and hospitals now use HealthLink services to source pathology and radiology reports, radiology image viewing, hospital discharge summaries, patient referrals, specialist letters, lab test ordering and messages between general practice and community based care providers.
The Newmarket-based business has become an international leader in healthcare sector integration, responsible for the exchange of 65 million items of clinical information a year between healthcare providers and the rest of the health sector, making the New Zealand health sector the most automated health system in the English-speaking world.
Telecom came out of its involvement in HealthLink through subsidiary Netway Communications, a year after the business was launched, but Bowden remained. "HealthLink needed to be run by a smaller core group rather than being run across various departments in Netway," he says. Telecom sold the business to Orion Health and to Nexus, Bowden's family-owned company and they own a half share each of the company. Bowden, an early entrepreneur who had his own printing company and has an MBA from the University of Auckland, is HealthLink's chief executive.
"We have no interest in being a public company," he says. "We want to do new and interesting things for the health sector." With a turnover of $12 million, HealthLink should become a $100 million company with international expansion, says Bowden.
"In New Zealand approximately one third of our income comes from medical practices, approximately one third from hospitals and labs, and one third from contracts with government for the provision of specific services."
HealthLink operates in New Zealand and Australia, processing clinical messages from 4500 medical practices here and 5500 to 6000 in Australia. The business has also gone live in Vancouver in the last three months. "It has a similar health system to New Zealand and Australia, it suits a Commonwealth country," says Bowden.
The company has 85 staff, including 10 in Australia, and one in British Columbia. It is growing by seven or eight people a year.
The company's latest services include CareConnect, an electronic referrals system developed for the three Auckland district health boards, for use across the Auckland region.
Transferring the care of a patient from primary to secondary care is one of the most important and error-prone processes in the health system, says Bowden.
Another new service launched by HealthLink is CareInsight, which enables GPs to offer patients safer after-hours care in emergency departments by allowing authorised medical emergency department doctors limited access to up-to-date patient records.
The two leaders in health IT, New Zealand and Denmark, have meanwhile started collaborating on projects such as HealthLink eLab, a standardised electronic pathology ordering system that enables medical practitioners to order pathology tests electronically. This has been set up in partnership with Danish Medical Data Distribution, a world leader in pathology test ordering.
Health IT is a competitive market, says Bowden. "The usual thing we do is find a pilot site and demonstrate what we are doing, and get that right. The proof is in the pudding."
Bowden adds: "We are very happy to make New Zealand our laboratory - we always pilot here." Pilot regions tend to be small centres such as the Hawkes Bay, Northland, and the Hutt Valley.