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Why there is more to virtualised care than telehealth

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented and unwanted challenge for the world's healthcare providers. But through all of the disruption and turmoil, it has left us with some important lessons that will help us in future crises, and also during the times in between.

For one thing, COVID proved the effectiveness of digital tools for supporting health outcomes. Seemingly overnight the Australian healthcare system pivoted from face-to-face interactions to utilising digital tools in support of telehealth consultations. The transition was not always smooth, and there is still plenty to learn, but the sector has clearly shown that it can use digital tools in support of better health outcomes.

This new capability will continue to support patient access and safety as organisations move through the next stages of the pandemic, and certainly will be called upon for challenges that lie ahead, be it fires, floods, or another pandemic.

However, this is not the only reason to continue investing in digital healthcare. The Australian Government's most recent Intergenerational Report predicts total healthcare expenditure will increase faster than ever over the next 40 years, increasing from 19% of total government spending in 2021−22 to 26% in 2060−61. Furthermore, Australia already faces skills shortages across the health system that show no signs of being filled, placing more strain on people and systems.

Beyond telehealth

New investments in technology will significantly contribute to organisations' capabilities to maintain or improve our quality of care, within the boundaries of affordability. Simply throwing more people at the problem is neither affordable nor realistic.

The need for solutions to these challenges has seen digital tools thrust into the spotlight. But if we are to look at harnessing the full benefits of digital healthcare, we must look beyond telehealth and consider how we can utilise the full benefits of digitisation, connectivity and automation.

What is needed is a more holistic view of virtual care – the use of digital tools to deliver a broad range of healthcare services in different settings – that encompasses emerging capabilities in remote monitoring, analytics, and care delivery.

Not only is there a raft of concepts and technologies promising benefits for all providers and patients, but these benefits also bring significant advantages for those people whose healthcare needs are often the most difficult to service, including people in rural and remote locations, people in situations of economic disadvantage, people with limited mobility, and the elderly.

Growing acceptance

A newly released research report from Optus and Cisco prepared by Vector Consulting demonstrates both the rapid adoption and increasing appetite for virtual care in Australian healthcare.

The research found that more than 70% of healthcare organisations had adopted virtual patient consultations, and just under 50% had also used digital tools for collaboration between clinical teams.

Australian healthcare professionals also indicated their belief that strong benefits would flow from continuing their digital healthcare journey, with 44% believing it would improve accessibility to care, and 15% believing it would lower the cost of care, while 11% said it would deliver better health outcomes.

They also saw scope for digital tools to help with other tasks, with 43% of hospitals intending to adopt mobile apps for accessing clinical information, and 45% planning to use analytics software for making clinical decisions. Furthermore, 39% of hospitals intended to adopt digital tools to do more remote monitoring of patients, and 39% wanted to use digital tools for automatically triaging and intaking patients.

The Vector Consulting research identified five key areas where the greatest opportunities lay:

  • remote monitoring
  • contactless visits
  • self-diagnostics
  • digital therapeutics
  • creating one-stop-shops for accessing health services.

Building the foundations for virtual care

While many of the technologies that exist to support virtual care already exist, significant work must still be done to bring them together to suit the specific needs of the Australian healthcare sector and the patients it services.

Optus and Cisco have a long established and proven partnership in developing unique and innovative solutions to meet the specific use cases and demands of specialised industries, with the backing and support of a national network of innovation centres and research chairs focused on digitisation including digital health.

By bringing together these leading healthcare thinkers into an ecosystem that is underpinned by advanced high-speed connectivity, agile processes, and secure-by-design services, Optus and Cisco are working to help deliver solutions that are purpose built for future healthcare delivery models.

The combination of Optus' super fast 5G network and integration capability and Cisco's digital network infrastructure and services, provides a flexible and reliable highspeed platform to support mobile-first interaction and connect devices, providers, and patients across the country.

It also offers the flexibility for healthcare providers to first focus on the challenges that matter most to them, without being locked into fixed development programs. This last point is critical in a dynamic world where capabilities evolve quickly.

And both companies' expertise in cybersecurity delivers the peace of mind that is essential both from a regulatory perspective, and for maintaining trust with patients.

The virtual health dividend

For healthcare providers, the goal is to adopt virtual healthcare by using invisible platforms that are easy to use for providers and patients, and that eliminate barriers to adoption and drive demand through providing a better experience. These services should in turn reduce the strain on healthcare staff and enable the more cost-effective deployment of resources while providing a better experience and health outcome for patients.

The pandemic has already proven the efficacy of digital tools in healthcare. The challenge now is to build on that momentum to create robust, secure, and efficient services.

And if we do so in the right way, we also have the opportunity to bridge geographic, social, and economic divides that exist within Australia, and provide a stronger and more consistent healthcare experience for all Australians.

To find out more about the opportunities that virtualised care presents to the Australian healthcare sector, request a copy of the Optus Enterprise & Cisco research report here

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