Opinion article

Healthcare in post-coronavirus Australia

Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering CEO, Kylie Walker, explains how better incorporating technology into Australia's healthcare system can prepare us for the next global pandemic. 

The novel coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) is an unprecedented global health, economic and human crisis. All over the world, countries are shutting down, trying to keep their health systems from being overwhelmed. Keep your distance. Wash your hands. Stay inside.

But did it have to be this way? What could we have done to ensure our health and economic systems were resilient to a catastrophe of this magnitude? And how might Australia prepare to manage the next pandemic?
We’re incredibly fortunate to have one of the best health systems in the world, but it’s by no means perfect. As technology evolves and improves, so should the way in which we deliver healthcare – from prevention through to diagnosis and treatment.

It’s not just the pandemic that’s putting a strain on a system that’s still almost entirely focused on cure, rather than prevention; that still relies on face-to-face consultations and long waits in GP clinics or emergency rooms; a system that still communicates through the outdated medium of fax machines.

Our ageing population and rising levels of chronic illness come with an increased demand for health and medical interventions and have been adding to the burden on the system for some time. Add to this the increasing frequency of emerging disease driven by climate change and a globalised lifestyle.

When you have a system that’s not quite able to meet its business-as-usual demand that doesn’t take advantage of the best available technology, and then a pandemic emerges, extreme measures become necessary.

The good news is that the gap between the current operation of the health system and its technology-enabled potential creates an enormous opportunity for strong and swift improvement. Closing this gap will set Australia up to not only deal with any future pandemic, but also deeply enhance our capacity to respond to our business-as-usual health care needs.

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) has spent the past year examining new and emerging technology in Australia’s health sector, and our readiness to develop, adapt or adopt this technology to meet the challenges of now, and of the coming decade.

We’ve spoken to experts in business, government and research to find the best solutions available through digital and data technologies, precision medicine and integrated care through technology. And we’ve used what we learned to craft a vision of a high performing, technology-supported, patient-centred, prevention-focused healthcare system.

We’ve brought these insights together in a major new report, A New Prescription: Preparing for a Healthcare Transformation. Significant steps can be made right now towards creating this next-generation health care system, and we’re confident that, with the right investments and regulatory triggers, the whole system can be overhauled and functioning optimally within 10 years.

This new prescription for healthcare – with a focus on prevention and wellness, enabled by technology – does away with paper files, in favour of secure electronic health records. Through it, health professionals will be able to easily share patient information, and analysis of big data will enable accurate monitoring and prediction of population health trends, informing and enabling governments to act early and invest in large-scale preventative measures for emerging lifestyle and infectious diseases. Genetic testing and screening will become affordable and support personalised medicine, with prevention and treatment targeted to your individual needs.

We’ll be able to connect the information gathered through phones and wearable devices to provide a real-time and holistic picture of an individual’s health – and design treatments and consultations through phone and video. Commonplace use of remote consultation will also open up better advice and treatment options for people who live remotely or who are unable to leave home safely and have limited access to medical specialists.

To achieve this vision, ATSE has made four clear and pragmatic recommendations to help policy-makers, businesses and researchers accelerate positive change. We recommend switching to electronic health records as soon as possible; using telehealth and mobile technology to improve access to healthcare; supporting and empowering health care workers to retrain, adapt and develop skills to use new digital technologies; and targeting government support for translating medical research and preparing it to get out to where it’s needed – patients.

How would the response to COVID-19 have been different if the pandemic had commenced after all of ATSE’s recommendations had been fully implemented? While the pandemic already has seen some of these changes accelerated beyond what we had previously imagined possible (the rapid expansion of telehealth, for example), implementation of these reforms could have facilitated a better response to the pandemic in a number of ways.
In a fully digitised healthcare system, governments and the medical community would have been able to identify and monitor COVID-19 in real time, using machine learning to identify disease outbreaks by looking for spikes in the reporting of relevant symptoms, and scraping the internet for relevant information. This data could be fed into probabilistic modelling and analytical tools to predict and assess pandemic risk, and estimate the potential burden – as well as enable early, and well targeted quarantining measures, and allocation of scarce resources to diagnosis and treatment where it’s most needed.

Using telehealth, at-risk people can be diagnosed, treatment plans devised, and appropriate support arranged – all without having to leave their homes. This would also reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for healthcare workers, thus preventing inadvertent spread to other vulnerable patients, and enabling them to save precious personal protective equipment for when it’s really needed. We could be using smart devices to automatically monitor patients’ temperature or oxygen levels, and prioritise medical care to those who need it most.

The Australian healthcare workforce is doing a phenomenal job, as it always does, in this national emergency. Equipping them to meet the challenges of this new threat is of the utmost importance, but so is equipping them to meet the needs of society once this is over. The challenges of the digital revolution and increasing consumer expectations will be accelerated by this crisis, and Australia faces significant skills shortages in the healthcare workforce, particularly in digital literacy.

Training and empowering the workforce to maximise the benefits of new healthcare, data and communications technologies will result in increased efficiency, better decision-making and improved health outcomes.
About the authors

Kylie Walker

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Kylie Walker is CEO of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) and Chair of the Australian National Commission for UNESCO.
She specialises in connecting technologists, engineers and scientists with governments, business, media and society - skills built over many years in senior federal communication and advocacy roles in the science, technology and health sectors.

As the immediate past CEO of Science & Technology Australia, Kylie led campaigns to increase investment in Australian research and development, and created the acclaimed Superstars of STEM program, championing Australian women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. She’s also been a Press Gallery journalist for Australian Associated Press and the ABC, and is a visiting Fellow at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS).