Building better healthcare through digitisation

By Craig Wong-Pan, Royal Bank of Canada, Sydney Branch
Published December 1, 2021 | 2 min read

Unlocking and sharing data to enable better decision-making will help drive healthcare into the digital age and contribute to improved patient outcomes.

Required Disclosures and Disclaimers

The COVID-19 pandemic has proved a shot in the arm for digital healthcare, with telehealth consultations becoming widespread and patients more comfortable with new medical technologies. Yet there is still broad scope for digitisation in the sector, explained panelists discussing Healthcare Goes Digital at RBC Capital Markets’ Australian Technology conference.


Doctors — and patients — have adjusted to the COVID challenge

With necessity the mother of invention, the healthcare industry has had to adapt quickly to the challenges posed by the pandemic and protect medical personnel on the front lines. Patients have also shown a willingness to accept change by forgoing traditional face-to-face consultations to reduce the risk of transmission. Dr Marcus Tan, CEO of Health Engine, a consumer healthcare search outfit, has noted telehealth consultations have quadrupled during the pandemic. Digital bookings in general have also jumped as more clinics and hospitals offer online services.

“Adapting to change is the theme we are seeing,” Dr Tan told the webinar moderated by Craig Wong-Pan, Director of Equity Research at RBC Capital Markets.

The shift to remote consultations has not only eased pressure on hospitals and medical centres, but also opened up potential opportunities for the electronic collection and storage of patient data and medical health records. Such information could prove valuable as industry participants look to streamline service delivery and enhance the patient experience.

“Any data we can add is going to provide better outcomes for the patient and help doctors. You get a better patient experience if you are helping and supporting the people delivering healthcare,” said Kate Quirke, Director and CEO of healthcare services provider Alcidion Corp.


Unlocking data will be key to digital gains

A lack of access to data, however, continues to be a hurdle to improved healthcare. Quirke believes the industry needs to build an information ‘ecosystem’ to aid decision-making and enable high quality research. The challenge will be to unlock the data and share it securely. This could extend from accessing patient records to expanding the hospitals in the home’ where data is collected from patients’ devices and apps. “The ability to store and access data on the cloud, as opposed to legacy systems, is vital for scaling up,” said James Scollay, Chief Executive Officer at Genie Solutions, a software provider for medical practices.

“Once we have patients and medical professionals connecting digitally, it is going to lead to platforms of scale and the ability to innovate more quickly,” he said.


Clearer data standards required to boost innovation

Laying the groundwork for an integrated digital ecosystem will require clear standards for data sharing. A lack of clear standards in Australia has been a hindrance to innovation, added Scollay.

“Here we are coming to the end of 2021 and a GP (general practitioner) would still find it difficult to send a referral across town to a specialist. It’s not nearly as easy as it should be. And the underlying problem is just clearly a lack of standards, adoption and mandates.”

Dr Tan said the industry has now reached a point where it is more prepared to share data to reap the benefits of its insights and move on from paper-based systems.

“We have gone past that now and we can start to unlock the value rather than worry about the downside,” he said.

Collaboration among participants will be key to drive change in a fragmented industry where service providers are at different stages of the digital journey. More alignment between Australia’s dual state and federal health authorities would also help smooth the path toward the integration of digital ecosystems.

“People in digital health need to understand that we can work together and there is not one solution to address everything,” said Quirke.


Digital biomarkers offer a data-driven diagnosis

For all the challenges, the outlook for health-tech is exciting, particularly around the development of artificial intelligence-enabled diagnostic tools. Digital biomarkers -- data collected through patients’ wearable or portable devices – are being used to gauge mental health through changes in a patient’s voice or engagement in social media. Australia has yet to embrace some of the technologies, but their potential is clear.

“Those that are currently used in wearables such as watches, none of the clinicians I am aware of are using any of that,” said Tan.

“To be able to have that (information) correlated to stress or mental health issues that you are potentially pre-disposed to as a preventative thing, I think that’s something that will come. But right now there’s a whole lot of information that’s being collected with no real application or insight.”

Innovation and investment is only likely to increase as the industry realises the potential of data-based tech. However, the challenge will lie in driving its adoption and bringing patients along on the digital journey.

“Very rarely is it about the tech. In most cases the tech works … It’s often as much about managing the people as much as managing the tech,” said Dr Tan.