Geoffrey Stackhouse, Managing Director, Clarity Solutions
The Australian Government’s $2 billion online health database My Health Record (MHR) was dealt a painful blow this week - and it's mainly due to an 'own goal' by a key spokesperson.
In case you missed it, Dr Steve Hambleton, the former president of the Australian Medical Association who is now deputy chair of the My Health Record expansion program, told reporters:
“I guess I can't guarantee that there’s not a hole somewhere... There may be a
potential breach but that [will] not be the entire database ... it’d be individual
records and not all of them...”.
In any media interview you have to acknowledge real concerns or issues, but that doesn't mean you should spend 80 per cent of an interview dwelling on them.
Sure it's the newsworthy stuff that reporters are most interested in, but it's also the most dangerous territory to be stuck in when you are trying to instil confidence in a scheme that is meant to save lives.
Dr Hambleton's brutal honesty couldn't have been more poorly-timed for a government that is nursing a bruised reputation after last year's Census debacle.
He has also done nothing to convince Australians that the MHR will be any more reliable in handling our sensitive medical records appropriately.
Dr Hambleton was obviously asked by reporters to guarantee there wouldn't be holes somewhere in the system, and he swallowed it hook, line and sinker. He then proceeded to paint all the wrong pictures about weaknesses in the system.
But here's the thing. When a reporter asks you to guarantee anything, alarm bells should be ringing. It's a classic journalistic technique that a properly trained spokesperson would know to resist or reframe.
His blunder reinforces just how valuable quality media training and expert comms advice can be when you need to position a complex and highly-sensitive issue in a safe and memorable way that everyone will understand.
Indeed, a few thousand dollars spent on expert media advice (with a particular focus on bridging techniques to get you out of trouble) is a drop in the ocean when you consider the billions of dollars the Australian Government has spent on this initiative.
Unfortunately, Dr Hambleton's approach gave reporters a negative angle, a cracking headline and did little more than spook Australians, who are already opting out of the scheme in their droves.
Attempting to restore faith, the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt stepped in to show how it should be done with riveting references to "world-leading security". For example, he said:
"It is not just bank-level security but the advice from the Digital Health Agency
is that it has been defence-tested... It's arguably the world's leading and most
secure medical information system at any national level."
Stirring stuff, just a shame it came after the damage had already been done. Once the so-called Genie is out of the bottle you can’t get it back in, no matter how quotable you might be.
I’m also surprised that a Government that routinely plants agenda-shaping stories (just look at the run up to a Federal Budget) could bungle what should have been a simple and straightforward campaign to prepare the public for significant change.
Where were the case studies from one of the 230,000-plus people hospitalised each year due to medical errors?
What about the heart-warming stories of lives saved because remote doctors have access to the patient’s medical history online?
And let's not forget the economic benefits, like saving millions of dollars eliminating duplicated blood tests.
There must have been days or even weeks worth of stories that could have persuade and informed the public and positioned the initiative for success. Instead, it appears to have been dropped-in cold on an already skittish public while providing fuel for interest groups to push their own agendas.
And I wonder, given the sensitive nature of online data initiatives, particularly when it comes to privacy and data breaches, just how much time Dr Hambleton spent preparing for nasty, left field questions.
It's these issues that are exploding on social media right now as people use the #MyHealthRecord hashtag to warn others off the scheme.
The Australian Digital Health Agency, which manages My Health Record, should be persuading people that the system is reliable and safe. We should be hearing more comforting statements about encryption, firewalls, secure log-ins and the fact that the system will be under constant surveillance.
Australians also need open and honest assurances about who can access their medical records online and how that information might be used. Will it be used in court cases, for example, or accessed by police?
It's no doubt a pipe dream, but imagine how phenomenally successful the system would be if we were all assured that third parties would never, ever, be allowed to access our sensitive data.
The lesson here is that you only get one chance to make a good first impression.
For My Health Record and its spokesperson, a relatively small investment and a little preparation could have positioned this as the revolutionary life-saving, and cost-saving, initiative that it is.
Instead, its hotline and website has been overloaded by hordes of panicked people rushing to opt out because of a bungled announcement and a defensive game plan that trotted out too many negatives.
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