We can no longer afford a business-as-usual approach to health care

By Helen Souness, RMIT Online CEO
Wednesday, 28 October, 2020

We can no longer afford a business-as-usual approach to health care

As the number of COVID-19 cases across Victoria continue to decline, Premier Daniel Andrews recently announced a plan for a phased return of elective surgeries after nearly a six-month shutdown. To address the large backlog, we need to look at ways in which we can improve this system effectively for the digital era.

Our health system has not had to navigate an event like COVID-19. Governments have an immense and ongoing task to ensure readiness in our hospital system, having stockpiled 7500 ventilators nationally.

This is unlikely to be the last pandemic — globally, we’ve already had several close calls with SARS and MERS, and researchers have been warning about the imminent danger posed by novel viruses for more than a decade.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, we have been fast approaching a tipping point in health care. With an ageing population, and people living longer with more chronic illnesses, current healthcare models and practices will not be sufficient to deliver the kind of patient care that Australians need. It is simply not possible to continually add doctors, nurses, beds and hospitals to our health system at the required rate to ensure that the healthcare needs of this population are met.

To deliver superior patient care and ensure that we have the capability to manage emerging threats like COVID-19, we must use every tool at our disposal. Advances in healthcare technology will transform the way we receive health care. These include direct patient-facing applications like wearables, sensors, apps and telehealth delivery, and less immediately visible but just as crucial applications like data analysis, population health, AI risk identification, records digitisation and machine learning.

Our ability to apply and integrate these advances will determine the wellbeing of generations of Australians. Right now we have a world-class hospital system treating a cohort of people who, with the right interventions, need not have been hospitalised. A CSIRO study of telehealth programs found that effective telehealth treatment for chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes reduced hospital presentations by 53%.

Health care and social assistance has been marked as the sector to experience the highest job growth, with the Department of Jobs and Small Business forecasting it will employ an additional quarter of a million people by 2022. We cannot afford to duplicate the training and practices currently employed in this new cohort of doctors, nurses, carers and managers.

Clinicians must be trained not only to use sensors, monitors, apps and telehealth in their own medical practice, but to educate patients in their use so that the superior patient care that these devices enable can be realised.

Designers and managers must have the skills to fundamentally shift the focus of health care from acute treatment to prevention. They must build systems that are robust, distributed and capable of providing superior patient care as well as preserving capacity for events like COVID-19.

Managers must be trained to be tech-forward in their thinking and organisational planning. Leading a tech-driven organisational or sectoral transformation must come with an underlying understanding of the capabilities that are being embedded in the system that’s been designed.

Each of these areas — leadership, design and clinical practice — must be addressed at the same time for us to make the necessary transformations to our health system to ready it for present and future challenges. They each enable the others, and a failure to address any of them will inhibit progress overall.

RMIT Online recently joined with AWS, the Digital Health Cooperative Research Centre and Telstra Health to design training for clinicians and health service managers to ensure that the people who run and work in our health system are digitally literate and technology-forward.

We have worked closely with industry to make sure these courses address crucial skills gaps that are currently preventing our healthcare system from addressing the next generation of challenges. They are a start towards building the skills base we need for 21st-century healthcare practice, but they are just that — only a start.

As a nation, we need to refocus the training of the healthcare sector for an era where telehealth is prominent, home-based treatments and monitoring are prevalent and AI, data and machine learning augment our human skills in health care.

This approach must inform healthcare training and practice at every level, from CEOs and surgeons to personal carers. People are not attached to receiving treatment in hospitals; they are attached to remaining healthy. The more we can harness the technology at our disposal to ensure that patients live better lives without hospital treatment, the better positioned we will be to navigate the next COVID-like event when it comes.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/santiago silver

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