Australia’s My Health Record has come under a large amount of criticism during a launch period that has been marred by a row over privacy. However, the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) said the record could improve communication between healthcare professionals and people with low levels of English proficiency, leading to better health outcomes.

Australians have until tomorrow to opt out of the scheme that will automatically create a digital health record for them, after the government extended the deadline to do so. This was in response to concerns about privacy and difficulty in getting through to a telephone opt-out helpline.

Late last year, a number of changes were unveiled by Australian Prime Minister Greg Hunt to address these privacy issues, including whether violent exes would be able to access the records of their former partners. Other changes introduced include increased penalties, with fines more than doubling to $315,000 or up to five years in jail for those who misuse the system.

The Australian Digital Health Agency, which is implementing My Health Record, will not be able to allow other entities to access the records, such as employers and health insurers, to prevent discrimination against individuals using the system.

Mohammad Al-Khafaji, acting CEO of FECCA is supportive of the tool, which he believes could help overcome barriers to healthcare among culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities. Around 21% of Australians speak a non-English language at home, according to figures from the 2016 census.

Barriers faced by people from CALD communities include a lack of knowledge of translation services available and information provision in community languages as well as actual or perceived racism among medical practitioners.

Having a record digitally accessible without need for extensive verbal communication will lead to better-informed treatment decisions, particularly for carers, older people and those with lower levels of English proficiency, according to Al-Khafaji.  

The Australian Digital Health Agency has partnered with FECCA to communicate with CALD communities across Australia, including the use of in-language resources. The agency has also worked with the Settlement Council of Australia to provide information about the scheme to recently arrived migrants and refugees.

After the opt-out date on Thursday, an estimated 17 million Australians will have their record automatically created, from a population of around 24.6 million.