Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Australia's NIB on digitally fuelled healthcare in a post-coronavirus world

The health insurance company's managing director said COVID-19 has 'drained a few moats around so many healthcare fortresses and traditions'.

Telemedicine is changing the way we see doctors

Australia and New Zealand health insurer NIB is predicting a future in healthcare fuelled by technology. NIB CEO and managing director Mark Fitzgibbon said that without downplaying the devastation COVID-19 has caused the world, the pandemic has also "drained a few moats around so many healthcare fortresses and traditions" and that new technologies would, as a result, find their way into the foreground.

Speaking at Amazon Web Service (AWS) Summit Online, Fitzgibbon said healthcare is on the cusp of a "profound transformation" due to the combination of data science and digital technologies.

"We are rapidly moving towards a future of more concerted disease prevention," he said. "With more and more data, and by applying machine learning, we're increasingly able to predict disease risk in individuals and with that, hopefully prevent many or more precisely treat the risk of that disease."

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Fitzgibbon described that future as having machine learning algorithms that could predict whether a patient has biological, psychological, physiological, genetic, and social characteristics of "a, b, and c"; or if that person is at risk of diseases "one, two, and three"; or it could provide the knowledge that the best way to prevent, manage, or treat the disease is "x, y, z".

"We will see more and more virtual and digital health … it will seem very odd that once upon a time we saw doctors face to face with the obvious risk of cross-infection and sitting in waiting rooms with lots of sick people," he said.

"Sooner than what many of you may anticipate, especially because of COVID-19, we will simply connect with doctors via telehealth and have symptom checkers and other diagnostic tech at home or wherever we happen to be in the world to allow doctors to diagnose and treat us."

See also: AWS touts current way of working as the new normal

Fitzgibbon said the emergence of 5G and Internet of Things has added tremendous momentum to the shift.

"In this world, prevention truly trumps our past and present preoccupation with cure; we become about healthcare rather than sick care and we'll probably get to live to be 200 by the end of this Century," he said.

A second trend that has already kicked off, he added, is telemedicine.

Fitzgibbon discussed a recent investment NIB made in Honeysuckle Health, which is a joint venture with US-based healthcare company Cigna. He said Honeysuckle's proposition is data-led health risk prediction and prevention.

According to Fitzgibbon there will be a "plethora of new approaches to healthcare", such AI-powered robotic doctors, as well as more home treatments and custom-designed drugs that fit an individual's health profile.

Looking internally, Fitzgibbon said healthcare transformation has caused NIB to completely redefine its purpose to be more than just the company that steps in to pay medical bills.

"It's caused us to invest aggressively in new technologies that enable us to store and interpret mass data, help our members and travellers improve their health literacy and manage risk, and find and choose doctors," he said.

NIB was one of the first regulated financial services companies in Australia to move its system of record to the AWS cloud platform. Fitzgibbon said buying into digital and cloud technologies has also had big implications for its workforce and the way it works, especially now that is remotely.

"This has been facilitated by the likes of Amazon Connect and Workspaces, and beyond COVID-19 it will remain part of the new normal, I'm sure," he said. "I just can't see things totally going back to the way they were. I suppose you don't have to be a historian to appreciate it often takes a crisis to push us out of our comfort zones and drive new ways of working and problem solving."

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