Virtual care — beyond the pandemic
Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, how do we maintain the momentum in virtual care that is transforming our health system?
After years of ongoing debate on the validity of telehealth and connected health care, Australia has made decades’ worth of progress and investment in platforms to deliver virtual care as a means to protect from infection during COVID-19.
Between March 2020 and April 2021, more than 56 million telehealth services were delivered to 13.6 million patients, equating to almost $2.9 billion in Medicare benefits paid. The recent federal Budget continued the investment into telehealth by a further $204.6 million, bringing the total to date to $3.6 billion. However, the reimbursement piece is still, at this stage, temporary.
The tip of the iceberg
In a truly modern healthcare system, platforms and infrastructure for connectivity, such as telehealth, are only the tip of the iceberg. Core infrastructure such as telehealth and electronic health records are critical platforms for enabling more sophisticated remote patient management technologies, which support the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of health conditions.
Such digital medicine and digital therapeutics technologies go beyond electronic medical records, connectivity and infrastructure, to technologies that are proven in clinical trials to have a direct, measurable and safe impact on the welfare of patients and healthcare consumers. These technologies represent the cutting edge of medical product development and engagement with empowered consumers to deliver greater healthcare outcomes for all.
The challenge of system structures
At the recent ANDHealth digital health commercialisation masterclass, we brought together global experts in digital health innovation to share their experiences in tackling the challenge of building a truly modern healthcare system, providing care to those who need it, whenever they need it, wherever they are.
Keynote speaker Drew Schiller, CEO and co-founder of US company Validic, was clear that the technology and expertise needed to connect patient-generated data from home medical devices, apps and wearables into the health system already exist (at least in the US). The challenge is that these technologies cannot simply be overlaid onto our existing healthcare system.
“The biggest impediment to taking innovation and scaling it for widespread use, especially in large healthcare systems, is the inertia of ‘digital health operations’,” he said. There is no shortage of ideas for innovation but often those ideas lose momentum as clinicians and innovators push through operational hurdles, with an “endless cycle of pilots to get traction while nothing seems to grip”.
For digital health to grow, systems and structures need to accommodate these new technologies. Implemented earlier this year, changes to regulations around Software as a Medical Device in Australia are an important step in this direction. However, more needs to be done for clinicians and patients to take up these technologies, including reimbursement for their time to review monitoring data, such as in the US, or reimbursement for prescription apps themselves, such as in Germany.
Evolution to point of patient care
As well as the adoption of remote consultation platforms, COVID-19 has highlighted broader changes in patient and clinician attitudes and behaviours.
In today’s world, a person’s healthcare data is not just a sum of a patient’s medical interactions, scans, tests and clinician notes, but also the data generated and gathered by consumers using their own devices. This consumer-generated data offers an unprecedented glimpse into the lives of patients outside the clinical environment, often providing an objective snapshot of behaviours and symptoms, which may or may not be accurately conveyed in a patient-to-clinician conversation. Such data offers incredible insight for clinicians and can inform more effective diagnosis, prevention and treatment of chronic and acute conditions.
Digital interventions have already been proven, across many clinical areas, to be able to deliver substantial healthcare benefits, be it in the management of type 2 diabetes, improving adherence and reducing hospitalisations in chronic respiratory disease, or in providing support and treatment in mental health.
At-home connected diagnostics, including COVID tests, are enabling patients to stay home when they are unwell, protecting themselves and their communities. Increasing use of point-of-care diagnostics can reduce the time to receive results and make for faster and more accurate diagnoses, with connected healthcare platforms allowing this information to seamlessly reach a patient’s regular physician or clinical care team.
All of these types of technologies can transform lives, and improve the affordability and effectiveness of our healthcare system, reducing emergency presentations and providing actionable insights in real time to both clinicians and consumers.
Australia has long been recognised as a global centre of excellence for health and medical research. This, combined with our growing technology sector, puts us in a prime position to build a world-class digital health sector, delivering cutting-edge health interventions and growing scalable high-technology health businesses, headquartered in Australia and serving the global patient population.
ANDHealth has worked with more than 450 of these emerging digital health companies over the past four years, supporting them to address a diverse range of health system needs. Recent regulatory clarity from the Therapeutic Goods Administration with respect to Software as a Medical Device has paved the way for the extraordinary work of these innovators to be recognised as genuine medical-grade interventions, which is a step towards these technologies reaching the hands of patients.
Post-pandemic health care
A post-pandemic future is one that shifts care from the clinic or hospital to the home. In this human-centric healthcare system of the future, digital health solutions can deliver on disease prevention, diagnoses, management and treatment while at the same time improving the efficiency of our healthcare system, and the ability of all Australians to access it.
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