Healthcare in Australia is under strain, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the poor outcomes associated with chronic illnesses such as obesity, mental illness and cardiovascular disease. The rising burden of chronic conditions is one of several critical challenges the healthcare sector will face in the coming decade.
Other challenges include changes in consumer behaviour and expectations, incompatible record-keeping systems, poor communication between healthcare professionals, inequity in access to care and unsustainable funding models.
To effectively tackle these challenges the sector must undergo a step change, embrace technology and shift its focus to prevention and wellness, radically moving from reactive to preventative strategies.
Are we technology ready?
Drawing on its experience as a Learned Academy of independent, non-political experts dedicated to helping Australians understand and use technology to solve complex problems, the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) has examined the healthcare sector’s readiness to develop, adapt and adopt technologies that will underpin this shift over the next ten years.
In developing this report, A New Prescription: preparing for a healthcare transformation, we have also drawn on the expertise of key stakeholders from the nation’s healthcare sector.
Discussions with the experts in healthcare research and delivery reveal a consistent and common theme: we must use technology to support a shift in focus to a patient-centred, outcomes-focused, value-based system.
A roadmap for essential change emerged. In the decade to 2030, data and digital technologies will enable a transition from paper files to secure electronic health records; from fax machines to universally accessible health information platforms; and from fragmented information to big data that can be mined and analysed to accurately map, monitor and predict population health trends.
Technology will integrate patient histories, with an individual’s electronic health records functioning as a shared resource between themselves and their general practitioner, hospital, specialist, pharmacist and other healthcare professionals.
Precision medicine will become more common, with prevention and treatment strategies targeted to individuals. Genetic testing and screening for preventable disease will also become an affordable option. Healthcare will become integrated through technology, with smart devices, mobile health and telehealth – all linked through a digital health record – enabling a holistic picture of a person’s health.
Technological solutions to the problems of distance and mobility will enable affordable healthcare access for more Australians, when and where we need it.
A roadmap for the future
ATSE’s analysis shows this vision is achievable by 2030 through increased support for work that’s already underway, and by accelerating work in critical, foundational technology. Governments and industry are already working on these complex and sensitive issues, and through targeted action can maximise health outcomes and economic opportunities for Australia.
As individuals, Australians are prepared for a technology-supported transition. In fact, we expect it, although we have concerns about cybersecurity and ethics. There’s still debate over the appropriate regulatory structures for this transition, but they are world-class and heading in the right direction.
Some new technologies will need fit for purpose regulation and market access pathways. Greater preparation is required in our infrastructure, workforce skills, and economic and commercial environment, while continuing to ensure equity in our health system.
The most critical priority is the digitisation of health records; an issue that was highlighted by the majority of stakeholders and underpins the technology solutions identified by ATSE. Without a shift to electronic records, the fragmented healthcare system will not cope with increased volumes of data and the emergence of digital technologies, nor with the increasing personalisation of healthcare.
Integrated care will be unachievable without electronic health records, which are essential for efficient, accurate, timely and patient-centred care.
Embracing new technologies will also be vital in ensuring that the benefits of a wellness system are available in regional areas and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and to disadvantaged people in urban communities.
Barriers to equitable outcomes include distance, communication difficulties, financial resources, education levels, accessibility, and shortages of healthcare workers. Mobile and telehealth services can easily and inexpensively help Australians overcome these obstacles and access the best available care in a timely way.
Empowering the workforce to maximise the benefits from new healthcare, data and communications technologies will result in increased efficiency, better clinical decision-making and improved outcomes. The workforce must be supported in its transition to a focus on prevention and wellness, particularly developing skills to adapt to a technology-driven workplace.
Finally, the research sector needs a boost to provide the healthcare system with the tools it needs and ensure a robust return on investment. Despite generous government support, Australia’s position as a world leader in health technology research is at odds with its poorer translation and commercialisation record, indicating a system failure.
Government has a responsibility to ensure that there is support for and a clear path to develop timely, cost-effective and commercially successful products from initial research outcomes.
ATSE has made the following pragmatic recommendations, grouped under four key issues, to help policy-makers, industry and researchers accelerate positive change and use technology to revolutionise Australian healthcare over the coming decade.
We encourage government, funding agencies, the healthcare sector, and the research community to use these recommendations to plan for the needs and expectations of diverse Australian communities, and work towards an effective and equitable, prevention-focused future healthcare system.
1: Transition to interoperable electronic health records
All healthcare providers must switch to electronic records as soon as possible. Social licence for this move will fundamentally depend on well-communicated privacy and cybersecurity frameworks.
2: Improve equity of access to healthcare through technology
Use of telehealth and AI-enabled devices must increase to support equitable outcomes for people living with disadvantage, to improve access and reduce financial burden.
3: Support the existing and future healthcare workforce in the transition
Existing and new members of the national healthcare workforce must be supported and empowered to retrain, adapt and develop skills to use new digital technologies.
4: Provide targeted support for a thriving health technology sector
Government must support investment in improving pathways to commercialisation for Australian-developed medical technology.
These recommendations are intended as guidelines for government, funding agencies, the healthcare sector and the research community to meet the needs and expectations of diverse Australian communities, and to build practical research agendas to address questions about our future healthcare system.
This report provides an opportunity to plan for the future of healthcare in Australia, using technology to support our health and wellness.
Australia is a global leader in health, but it is critical that we continue to identify what we want for our society, what action government and the healthcare sector need to take, and how this will translate to a healthcare sector of the future.
Sue MacLeman FTSE
Chair and Non Executive Director MTPConnect
Sue is a pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical technology executive who has held senior roles in corporate, medical, commercial and business development. She is the Chair and Non-Executive Director of MTP Connect, a not-for-profit that aims to accelerate the growth of the health sector in Australia. She co-chaired the steering committee for this project.
Emeritus Professor Simon Foote FAA FTSE
Emeritus Professor, Australian National University
Simon Foote is a leading geneticist and the Director of the John Curtin School of Medical Research at ANU. He works widely within the medical research community on scientific advisory boards of charitable organisations and research institutes. He co-chaired the steering committee for this project.