With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare system in Australia, like all other healthcare systems globally, underwent a major crisis.
From bed blocks to a shortage of healthcare workers, and patients waiting for hours upto several days for hospitalisation, the Australian healthcare system suffered a huge blow.
But among the growing COVID-19 cases and the increasing strain on the Australian healthcare services, there emerged a silver lining – the enhanced acceptance of virtual healthcare.
According to a survey by PwC Australia[i], patients’ attitudes towards telehealth services changed drastically during the pandemic. The below graph represents the percentage of Medicare Benefits Schedule services delivered by telehealth during 2020-2021.
Another report by Deloitte[ii] found that the overall access to telehealth grew from less than 1% to more than 25% for all Medicare consultations during this period.
However, this temporary acceleration of digital healthcare didn’t just remain limited here. It sustained the momentum of change and made its way to the post-pandemic landscape.
The Changing Scenario of Healthcare
Prior to COVID-19, Australians would prefer to consult their health practitioners face-to-face. The uptake of digital healthcare was not prevalent, and all the telehealth consultations were not even covered by Medicare.
However, this changed with the tech bounce and federal support in the Australian healthcare system. The temporary government subsidies expanded the access to telehealth under Medicare services. The resulting telehealth consultations hit the 100 million services[iii] milestone in 2022.
Shift in End-User Preferences
With access to virtual healthcare, vulnerable people were able to avail healthcare facilities risk-free. According to a survey[ii], 69% of people experienced telehealth in the past year, and 72% of them agreed that the outcome was the same as it would have been face-to-face.
There is a general uprise in people’s willingness to access online healthcare. The survey findings also showed that about seven in 10 Australians are willing and ready to use virtual health services, such as accessing online health coaches and using digital navigators and home-based diagnostic technologies. More than 80% of patients are now up for sharing and owning their health data in a digitally-enabled health system.
Benefits of Digital Healthcare to Clinicians
With digitisation, the strained Australian healthcare system gets the chance to take a much-needed deep breath. Using virtual modes of care, health practitioners are able to simplify, automate, and streamline their various tasks, including:
- Consult a patient about their symptoms and offer suitable medical advice
- Follow up on a patient’s pathology reports
- Send reports to patients about their health and well-being
- Share information resources with patients on their specific medical conditions
- Provide more timely care to patients
- Collaborate better with patient’s primary caregivers
Concerns With Virtual Healthcare
While digital healthcare offers both patients and clinicians a ton of benefits, it is not without its challenges. Both consumers and healthcare service providers have raised several concerns about the current virtual healthcare system in Australia. This includes but is not limited to:
- Privacy and confidentiality of patient’s data
- Difficulties with availing telehealth services for not-so-tech-savvy patients
- Clinical misdiagnosis due to missing information about a patient
- The ability of current funding models of the government to subsidise telehealth for patients
Additionally, patients are facing issues with receiving coordinated care due to a decline in the participation rate of the health workforce. Meanwhile, Australia’s population is ageing fast with over 22% of the population aged over 65 years[ii].
This growing senior population together with a decline in the health workforce is driving Australia’s healthcare to an unsustainable level. Patients are facing poor experiences and the system is not able to serve everyone equally.
This calls for a paradigm shift in the country’s healthcare system.
The Ringing Paradigm Shift
Digitisation of healthcare can help save and improve the quality of life. Given its growing popularity, the Australian community now wants better access to mobile digital health services. But at the same time, they want their health data to be secure and the virtual healthcare solutions to be easy to use for all.
The healthcare providers have been equally clear about their needs. They want instant access to patient data, especially during emergencies, and support for better management of diseases. They also want technology to reduce their administrative burden and assist in the development of new treatments.
To deliver on all these requirements, the Australian government is strategising policies and utilising emerging technologies to improve virtual healthcare.
National Digital Health Strategy
The National Digital Health Strategy was established by the Australian government to evolve the capabilities of digital health through innovation, collaboration, and leadership. The strategy aims to achieve seven strategic priority outcomes by 2022 that include:
1. Health information that is available whenever and wherever it is needed
2. Health information that can be exchanged securely
3. High-quality data with a commonly understood meaning that can be used with confidence
4. Better availability and access to prescriptions and medicines information
5. Digitally-enabled models of care that drive improved accessibility, quality, safety, and efficiency
6. A workforce confidently using digital health technologies to deliver health and care
7. A thriving digital health industry delivering world-class innovation
Investments in Healthcare Plans
The Australian government is making significant investments in Australia’s Long Term National Health Plan. It has committed a record $537 billion[iv] over the next four years to improve the country’s health system. This includes:
- $133 billion in Medicare services to deliver support for clinical treatment through MBS
- $45.5 billion to access more affordable medicines through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS)
- $6.8 billion for life-saving and life-changing research by Medical Research Future Fund
- $4.2 billion to continue protecting Australians against COVID-19, through supply and access to safe and effective vaccines
- $1.7 billion towards the objectives of the Primary Health Care 10-Year Plan
- $296.5 million to deliver improvements in regional, rural and remote health as part of the 10-Year Stronger Rural Health Strategy
- $333 million to increase outcomes in women’s health
Emergence of Health 4.0
Health 4.0 is the health sector equivalent of the fourth industrial revolution. Fueled by the advancing digital technologies, it can be instrumental in levelling up Australia’s healthcare industry.
The exponential expansion of health apps and IoT devices has already made medical data capturing easy. People can monitor their critical health components such as heart rate, pulse rate, and physical activity through a smartwatch and get personalized recommendations for diet, sleep, and exercise.
Moreover, the upcoming technological evolution like virtual and augmented reality has the potential to democratise Australia’s healthcare. By arming people with the right technology, it will be able to help them take charge of their health and manage their own well-being.
In a nutshell, Australia already has a well-connected digital ecosystem. So, by integrating healthcare with national standards, delivering quality healthcare to all will become easier. Besides, it will help create a new health innovation exchange where clinicians, researchers, and entrepreneurs will be able to work collectively to design effective digital healthcare solutions.
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[i] PwC – The Turning Tide: Consumers and Clinicians Increasingingly Move Towards Virtual Healthcare
[ii] Deloitte – Australia’s Health Reimagined
[iii] Ministers Department of Health, Australia – Telehealth Hits 100 Million Services Milestone
[iv] Ministers Department of Health, Australia – Record investment in the future of Australia’s health system
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