Digital health thrives through crisis
There’s nothing like a crisis to bring out the best in Australians, our health system and our governments. There’s no denying COVID-19 has had devastating health and economic impacts in Australia and across the globe. However, the ability of our governments and health systems to innovate their service delivery has been remarkable.
COVID-19 created a situation where face-to-face contact had to be minimised. The system had to innovate and adapt, as did the healthcare profession and the patients it served. In mid-March, in response to COVID-19, the Australian Government increased Medicare-funded telehealth services, including telephone and video consultations. This was the critical systemic change required to enable the benefits of telehealth to be realised.
However, systemic reform alone would not have been enough to produce meaningful change. COVID-19 created an environment where both the healthcare profession and patients wanted to change. It had to change both to cope with unprecedented demand and because face-to-face contact had to be minimised.
Prior to March 2020, the use of telehealth in Australia was extremely limited among GPs, specialists and other health professionals – less than one per cent of all consultations. The system, patients and healthcare professionals were hardwired for face-to-face service delivery. From March to May, 12.5 million telehealth consultations were reported1. Uptake of telehealth went from less than one per cent in February to 33 per cent of all consultations in May.
New research commissioned by the Australian Digital Health Agency shows that the Australian community and healthcare professionals are now more open to using digital technology in healthcare and can see the importance of technology to improve health outcomes. Agency CEO Bettina McMahon said the research provides insight on attitudinal change towards the value of technology in healthcare in the face of COVID-19 as providers and consumers had embraced digital health tools and telehealth services2.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in digital health over the past three months as the health system has fast tracked its adoption of technology to deliver health services in a COVID world. This new research shows that we can expect digital health to remain a feature of healthcare into the future, now that consumers and healthcare professionals have experienced the convenience and benefits technology can bring.”
Fiftyfive5’s COVID-19 Consumer Impact Monitor (CCIM) has been surveying Australians weekly throughout the COVID-19 period, with nearly 30,000 surveys completed as at end July. Through the CCIM we’ve seen increased community confidence in government to manage the impact of COVID-19. Similarly, we’ve seen that community confidence in Australia’s healthcare system has also grown.
In similar research commissioned by the Australian Digital Health Agency, Fiftyfive5 measured a doubling of community confidence that Australia’s health care system can provide quality, safe and affordable healthcare. High positive sentiment toward Australia’s healthcare system also increased from 29 per cent to 68 per cent in the period from March to May.
If there’s a silver lining to COVID-19, it’s that many Australians and service providers have had to forgo face-to-face channels and give technology and alternative service delivery models a go. There is an opportunity for the government, the healthcare sector and the community to bank the increased convenience and efficiency of digital health.
Furthermore, with increased confidence in governments of all varieties, there is an opportunity for much broader introduction and use of digital service delivery. There are a huge range of government services that could be delivered more efficiently and effectively via digital channels. Australians’ use of digital technology and the uptake of digital health through the COVID-19 period is proof of concept.