COVID-19 intensifies the need for rapid adoption of digital health

Australian Digital Health Agency

By Steven Issa*
Monday, 17 August, 2020

COVID-19 intensifies the need for rapid adoption of digital health

Australia’s digital health strategy involves turning aspirations into products that protect personal information, improve workflows and deliver improved outcomes.

Internationally, COVID-19 has put health and wellness at the centre of government and community attention. In Australia, it has brought intense focus to the ability of our healthcare system to meet the challenge posed by this global pandemic.

It has also highlighted the incredibly important role of digital technologies and the health sector to plan and manage health services: protecting patients and clinicians by enabling the delivery of care in new ways.

Since Australia saw the initial spikes in COVID-19 cases and our first waves of lockdown restrictions, virtually every individual has been impacted in one way or another. For many of us this impact has been experiencing what a health ecosystem can provide using digital health technologies; for example, the ease with which we can access essential primary health services through the expansion of Medicare-subsidised telehealth services.

For software developers and IT professionals working in the health sector, medium- and long-term plans have had accelerated delivery timeframes; for example, the delivery of electronic prescriptions nationally. This initiative was pursued by the Australian Government under the National Health Plan for COVID-19 to enable Australians to receive their medications electronically while in self-isolation.

Australia’s healthcare system is held in high regard internationally and we have a clear strategy for a national health system enabled by digital health technologies. From a technology perspective, this involves turning aspirations into products — products that meet our uncompromising requirements that protect people’s personal health information, improve the workflows of healthcare providers and deliver improved health outcomes.

Better health for all Australians

If you are interested in technology, it is likely that you already appreciate the importance of a healthcare system where you can access your medical information online and your healthcare providers share information online rather than by fax or mail.

In addition to increasing awareness of how technology can support healthcare, COVID-19 has pushed us to accelerate industry innovation, as well as digital health literacy among the wider public and healthcare industry.

People were reportedly putting off usual health checks — or even urgently needed treatment — due to COVID-19 related fears. This prompted industry concerns of an ‘infodemic’ and was the basis of the ‘Don’t put your health on hold’ awareness campaign.

To support awareness efforts, the Australian Digital Health Agency (the Agency) launched a digital health guide to help Australians find the latest health information and advice about navigating the healthcare system.

Two accelerated digital health features — telehealth and electronic prescriptions — were always planned to be part of our health system. COVID-19 gave telehealth a kickstart and prompted a quicker implementation of electronic prescriptions.

Also, along with supporting and expediting advances that already exist, further innovation is still vital. Continued innovation is a key pillar of the National Digital Health Strategy (the Strategy).

With the Strategy as the foundation and to support the national COVID-19 response, the Agency ran an Innovation Challenge to champion digital health innovation across Australia and to provide a healthier future for Australians through connected health care. It invited participants to address one of three themes: digital clinical care, digital social care, and digital health population management and future preparedness.

Across the applications received and the challenge’s five winners, we were impressed with the breadth of innovation focused on solving key healthcare challenges.

The idea behind this initiative came from consulting international partners — which leads to the next area of focus.

Deeper international cooperation

A global pandemic has swiftly highlighted the value of international coordination and collaboration on key health challenges. Government responses around the world provided guidance and helped to inform our response here in Australia: preparedness and speed in Taiwan, public–private partnership in Iceland, and mass testing and contact-tracing technology in the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

The Agency has long-since prioritised international collaboration, as the inaugural Chair and Secretariat of the Global Digital Health Partnership (GDHP). Until the development of a vaccine and with mobility restrictions likely to continue, Australia will need to recommit to new and creative ways to engage with our global partners and learn from approaches unfolding in other countries. As a member of GDHP, Australia played a lead role in the development of a series of recently released white papers on digital health best practice.

Our National Digital Health Strategy offers a blueprint for Australia’s digital health future. To realise its aspirations, though, we’ll need to continue engaging with all Australians on the importance of digital health, proactively seeking out innovation and collaborating with other countries on what we’ve learned.

This isn’t just necessary for improving Australians’ health outcomes during the current pandemic, or even future public health crises. It’s necessary for addressing the myriad other health problems and systemic issues that predated the pandemic — especially now that we’ve all felt the personal impact of these issues a little more widely and a little more acutely.

*Steven Issa is Chief Digital Officer at the Australian Digital Health Agency.

Image credit: ©

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