Countries are going full steam ahead with telehealth. The pandemic has unlocked a wealth of opportunities for remote care, and healthcare providers are excited.

New South Wales, Australia, allocated AU$500 million (US$379 million) to digital health initiatives, including virtual care and telehealth, in its most recent budget. The state is looking to scale telehealth innovations from Covid-19 and turn them into a “longer-term strategic transformation”, says Dr Zoran Bolevich, CEO of eHealth New South Wales (eHealth NSW).

GovInsider spoke to Dr Bolevich to find out how the state is ramping up telehealth and using data to power its Covid-19 vaccine rollout.

Moving to virtual care

Covid-19 prompted an increased uptake of telehealth, says Dr Bolevich. It was “quite fortunate” that New South Wales had already been preparing a new video consultation platform, myVirtualCare, before the pandemic hit.

The state used video consultations to monitor the recovery of Covid-positive patients, he says. That enabled clinicians to react quickly when their condition deteriorated and transfer them to hospitals.

Telehealth tools were also helpful in looking after patients in aged care facilities, Dr Bolevich shares. Healthcare providers could provide residents and staff with advice and arrange for additional acute care if necessary. This reduced the instances of patients being transferred to hospitals, he adds.

New South Wales has set up a unit, the Virtual Care Accelerator, to identify and learn from “best virtual care innovations across the health systems”. The unit comprises experts from eHealth NSW, the Agency for Clinical Innovation, and other local health districts, he explains.

The multi-agency team also assesses different telehealth technologies and creates a “standard panel of vendors”, Dr Bolevich says. This allows districts looking to implement virtual care to choose from proven vendors and “rely on what we’ve already learnt as a system”.

Covid-19 VacTech

New South Wales’ currency priority is to administer vaccines to its over eight million residents. This is crucial as it battles its latest Covid-19 outbreak, which hit 35 cases as of 5 July.

Healthcare providers are using existing digital infrastructure for this “enormous task”, Dr Bolevich says. The Australian Immunisation Register, a central repository of vaccination data, was “boosted in recent months” to support the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.

eHealth NSW is building applications for vaccine booking and scheduling, Dr Bolevich says. These apps will help citizens book appointments at a convenient time and location, and allow clinics to manage demand smoothly.

The agency integrates local vaccination data into the Immunisation Register, which is combined with data from other states to give decision-makers an overview of the nationwide rollout, he explains..

Accurate, real-time data is crucial in the rollout, Dr Bolevich says. The state is monitoring the availability of clinics and vaccines to better coordinate this. It is also using data to better understand access to vaccination across the state, he adds.

Designing user-centric care

eHealth NSW’s senior executive team

eHealth NSW is also building tech for patient-centric care. One example is a new system that allows patients to provide feedback on their healthcare experience and outcomes, Dr Bolevich says.

Clinicians can access this data to improve the way they design and provide care for patients. This system has gone live in some clinics across NSW Health, and initial feedback has been “very, very positive”, he adds.

Next, eHealth NSW plans to integrate this data into electronic medical records and scheduling systems. This way, clinicians don’t need to switch between different systems to retrieve patient feedback, Dr Bolevich says.

New South Wales is also building a digital health record system for children, he says. Parents used to carry a paper-based book between healthcare appointments, but this system will compile children’s medical data into a single app.

Real-time data analytics and security

eHealth NSW is doubling down on security following a spate of cyber attacks across the world, says Dr Bolevich. It has invested in a health security operations center and doubled the size of its security team in the last 18 months.

It’s also working to adhere to the Essential Eight standards, a set of national mitigation strategies that make it “much harder for adversaries to compromise systems,” the Australian Cyber Security Centre’s website wrote.

That has required legacy systems in eHealth NSW to be modernised or replaced. “It’s a very costly strategy, but it needs to be done,” Dr Bolevich says.

A whole-of-government effort is required to tackle security issues, Dr Bolevich emphasises. Health agencies are working together with New South Wales’ cybersecurity group and other agencies to fortify their digital defenses.

Moving forward, eHealth NSW will focus on implementing real-time data. Healthcare agencies collect a lot of data, but it tends to be fragmented, he adds.

His team is “really enthusiastic” about using more big data tools to integrate and analyse data. Machine learning will also help the health system be “more proactive in identifying groups in the population of people with chronic illnesses” and offering relevant services, Dr Bolevich says.

Healthcare is set to change forever, following major disruptions from Covid-19. Innovations like telehealth and data analytics will pave the way for more resilient healthcare systems.

Images by eHealth NSW