During the Health Informatics Conference in Brisbane in August 2011, the CEO of Australia’s National E-health Transition Authority, Peter Fleming, likened building the national system of Personally Controlled Electronic Health Records (PCEHR) to putting a man on the moon.Well let’s examine where we are at the end of 2011, with 6 months to go to the launch date.
At first glance there is one notable similarity between building a national PCEHR system and putting a man on the moon. They both have a daring, pioneering spirit typical of young nations – a “Great, grand idea. Bugger the cost” mentality. We have seen it with Australia’s Snowy Mountains Scheme and more recently in Australia with the National Broadband Network.
In the case of the PCEHR, I suspect this is where the similarity ends.
Firstly, we still have no detailed design of the system, although we do have some notion of who will be building the rocket and what some of the components will probably be. We certainly don’t have any detailed specifications; we don’t know where the journey will take us, nor how we will know when we are there. We don’t know how long the journey will take; nor how much it will cost.
Secondly, we seem to be fixated on meeting the launch date, despite reservations in many quarters about various technical, policy and operational matters. In fact, beyond the launch, we have no understanding of the operational matters at all. None whatsoever! Six months to launch date!
Long before the North American Space Agency (NASA) launched the Columbia space ship on its historical, Apollo 11 journey in 1969, they had very detailed designs, very detailed costs, had spent years testing and retesting components and had spent years testing and retesting processes and procedures. NASA certainly did not merely focus on the launch, but on all the operational details of how the space ship needed to get to the moon, achieve a successful landing, perform a range of tasks on the lunar surface, and return the astronauts safely back to earth. The rocket launch itself, was but one small step for mankind, albeit one large step for man.
The 1969 Apollo 11 mission was an amazing feat of administration and of management by NASA. It was underpinned by an amazing feat of complex engineering. However, even NASA, with all its resources and attention to detail has not always had successes. Several missions have ended in tragedy, with the catastrophic destruction of 2 space ships and crews, primarily because not all the I’s were dotted, nor T’s crossed. The Challenger shuttle disaster of 1986 contains particularly salutary lessons. In his personal observations to the Roger’s Commission into the disaster, Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman, wrote:
“It would appear that, for whatever purpose, be it for internal or external consumption, the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product, to the point of fantasy.”
“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” [ see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rogers_Commission_Report ]
[ I highly recommend the concluding 5 paragraphs of Feynman’s findings ]
Following the Challenger disaster, NASA was much more circumspect, and for subsequent missions, would always delay launches if safety checks revealed the slightest concern, or the conditions weren’t quite right.
And so back to the PCEHR. Are we to continue along this path to launching something in 6 months time? Something that has no detailed design specifications! No costings! No operating plan! No notion of what might constitute success – surely not just a launch!
To my simple engineer’s mind this current program seems light years away from landing. More like lunacy, perhaps.