It might seem like a strange thing to say when our economy is on life support and the number of unemployed continues to grow, but in some ways 2020 has granted Australia an opportunity.
At the time of writing, less than one per cent of our population has contracted COVID 19, and we’ve been spared the worst-case scenario many authorities were predicting back in March. This is partly due to our ability to control our borders, our effective social-distancing measures and consistent government communication. But it’s also due to the extraordinary – and in some cases surprising – agility of our healthcare sector.
This year, we’ve seen the traditionally risk-averse, heavily regulated industry innovate with unprecedented speed. We’ve seen professionals across disciplines and sectors collaborate seamlessly to deliver a consistent crisis response. And we’ve seen our chronically pressured healthcare workforce use digital technology to deliver care in more ways than ever before.
Rapid innovation, effective collaboration and digital enablement have helped healthcare workers deliver a COVID-19 response that more than half of all Australians rate as excellent or good. Now, as we begin to imagine a post-pandemic future, how can we channel this energy into tackling other, longer-term challenges facing the sector?
How can we use telehealth – that is, health-care consultations delivered by video conference or other digital means – for instance, to improve outcomes in underserved areas? It’s no secret that healthcare workers are in short supply, or that the problem is particularly pronounced in rural and regional areas. In these areas, there can be just 16.3 physicians for every 10,000 people. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that rural and regional Australians tend to have poorer health outcomes and shorter lives than their metropolitan neighbours. But telehealth has the potential to change all that.
In the three months leading up to June 2020, clinicians delivered 17.2 million telephone and video consultations. We also saw the rollout of virtual hospitals, where doctors and nurses remotely track the condition of patients using real-time data from wearable devices. The University of New England’s virtual hospital in Armidale, initially established to guard against a potential COVID-19 outbreak, demonstrated an incredible response in the use of technology to prepare for some of these scenarios. At Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred virtual hospital, 89 per cent
of patients feel that remote-monitoring technology has improved their access to care and treatment.
As we watch clinicians and their patients adopt these new models of healthcare with surprising ease and speed, we’re learning that physical proximity needn’t determine the availability or quality of care. And telehealth isn’t the only pandemic-induced innovation that has the potential to improve health outcomes into the future.
Throughout the pandemic, governments and medical officials have used artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced data analytics to predict and model scenarios so they can make informed plans for a range of eventualities. These technologies have enabled decision makers to rapidly adjust their crisis responses as new data arises. Moving forward, they can continue to help us anticipate and address other longer-term health issues facing our country.
These are just some examples of the rapid changes COVID-19 has engendered – and the possibilities that will arise in its wake. Microsoft Australia’s new Revaluing health
report considers many of these changes, drawing on the insights of industry experts and leaders. Our report poses the challenge that should now be front of mind for all Australian policy makers: How can we use the experiences of the past six months to deliver better care to all Australians in a post-COVID-19 future?