Gilbert + Tobin recently hosted a panel discussion with Dr Amith Shetty, Professor Jeremy Chapman AC, and Richard Alcock AO, moderated by Technology + Digital Partner, Andrew Hii.

The panellists discussed the prevailing local and global trends in the healthcare sector, focussing on:

  • the future of healthcare and the benefits and limitations of digital health solutions;
  • the challenges for innovation and investment in healthcare; and
  • the significance of data governance, including the benefits and risks involved in the use of data.

We have summarised below the key discussion points.

What does the future of the healthcare sector look like?

The trends in the global healthcare landscape include the move toward care in the home, with hospitals shifting towards larger ICUs and high-care admissions. This trend goes hand-in-hand with the increase in digital health solutions applied in the home, and emphasis on patients having greater control over their care. For example, chronic diseases can now be managed at home by patients with specific tools and support from their general practitioners over Zoom. This trend is also evident in the aged care sector, where people are electing to live at home for longer.

Patient behaviours have changed because of the global pandemic – for example, there were significantly less patients visiting hospitals, and more being treated in the home. This has provided patients with greater choice as to how they wish to receive healthcare services. However, this also presents different kinds of risks for patients and healthcare services. For example, the shift towards telehealth is still largely limited by the type of medical intervention required – acute care (such as tending to a broken leg or resuscitation) cannot be delivered remotely.

Consumer-facing technologies have the potential to help all of us live healthier lives – for example, to do more exercise, have better control over our weight and diet and manage stress. These kinds of technologies should be seen as distinct from the technological developments that are used by clinicians. Healthier-living will reduce, but not eliminate, the frequency that people need medical help – the need for clinician-delivered medical care will remain.

Healthcare has the potential to digitise and evolve in the same way that the financial services industry did ten to twenty years ago. Today, most of us interact solely or predominantly with our banks through digital means. Certain factors make digitisation of Australian healthcare a likelihood: Australia is generally an affluent country; health literacy is high (as evidenced by our collective response to coronavirus) and the use of digital products and smartphones is widespread. Australia’s receptiveness to digitisation represents an opportunity for Australia to become a leader in healthcare innovations.

The large volumes of data collected in the health sector together with the clinical need to be able to process and understand this data rapidly means that the “Big Tech” companies – such as Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Google – may have a key role in the transformation of the healthcare sector. However, it is likely that these companies will not “do it alone” but will collaborate with locally-based healthcare partners to be able to quickly and efficiently tailor their technology to Australian healthcare settings.

All the panellists highlighted data and privacy issues are becoming increasingly critical in healthcare, especially with the adoption of novel technologies, innovations and ‘analysis of big data’. The ability to draw connections across different data sets within and outside organisations remains a challenge for many. In NSW, reference was made to the Lumos Project, which is aimed at linking data between general practitioners and other healthcare services (for example, hospitals) in a safe and ethical manner to provide new and significant insights around patient care.

The challenges for innovation and investment in healthcare

It was highlighted that most healthcare IT systems were not designed specifically for the Australian health sector, but rather the American market. In this regard, there are opportunities for new IT systems that can be tailored to local conditions.

Two kinds of products were specifically referred to: biotech products enhanced by data analytics and purely digital products (such as apps and algorithms). The swift evolution of processing and analysing technologies has the potential to make some purely digital products quickly obsolete. The panellists discussed how artificial intelligence was being used in NSW, including in the detection of sepsis. The shift to securely storing data in cloud-based systems provides for a level of data analytics to be performed that was not previously possible.

Importantly, however at this stage, these technologies only augment existing capabilities and are not a suitable replacement of real-world clinicians. The current economics of healthcare dictate that the provision of highly complex (and expensive) medical equipment by a highly skilled workforce must be done centrally (that is, in hospitals and similar settings). It was noted that the combination of artificial intelligence with real-world expertise and experience can deliver results far better than any one of those things alone – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The importance of data governance in healthcare

All of the panellists noted the benefits and risks involved in the use of patient data. Data governance is critical to ensuring that necessary privacy is protected within a robust security framework, while still allowing for the patient to benefit from the use of their data. The rapid uptake of the Covid Safe app in Australia was, in part, based on the strong data governance that was implemented for it. Trust is a critical component to the adoption of digital health products.

In the health sector, data security needs to be managed within a framework that acknowledges the often time-critical nature of what clinicians and their patients are dealing with. Health technologies need to deliver on the right data being available at the right time. This in and of itself presents an opportunity for innovation. As noted above, companies who specialise in ‘big data’ may be in the best place to help clinicians rapidly digest large volumes of data, by providing crucial insights.

Finally, all the panellists acknowledged that data and digital applications will augment healthcare, rather than overtake it, and that trust and good personal relations will never be redundant in a healthcare setting.