The height of the COVID-19 panic in Australia has subsided, and the nation’s attention has turned from its own health to that of the economy. But while many sectors are moving to a post-pandemic perspective, the healthcare industry continues to manage the COVID-19 frontline. Case numbers have surged due to new variants of the virus and the ongoing strain on healthcare workers is growing, with 87% of the Royal Australasian College of Physician members concerned about workforce burnout.
Adapting in response, Australia’s healthcare facilities have implemented large scale change to the way they operate. Remote health solutions are becoming more mainstream, digitisation continues to accelerate, and the Medicare Benefits Scheme (MBS) telehealth funding arrangements have increased uptake and acceptance of digital healthcare models. Together these unique forces are shaping the priorities of Australia’s healthcare leaders, according to the findings from the Future Health Index 2022 Australian report (FHI 2022).
Based on survey responses from 200 Australian healthcare leaders, this year’s report explores how healthcare leaders are reassessing their priorities to address key challenges including staff shortages and retention, extending care delivery, and harnessing the power of big data and predictive analytics.
And while the industry continues to face a vast array of challenges, from a decline in public hospital beds to overstretched emergency and acute care settings, the extreme disruption created by the pandemic has forced many senior executives to rethink their strategic goals and use disruption as a force for resilience. From tackling inherent systemic challenges to healthcare delivery that were exacerbated by the pandemic, to growing some of the positive technological changes, Australia’s healthcare leaders are refocusing their attention to create a path forward for positive long-term change.
This shift in priorities is reflected in a renewed impetus among healthcare leaders to modernise the clinical and operational aspects of healthcare to address some of the hard lessons learned from the pandemic.
When asked to rank their current priorities outside of the financial health of their healthcare facility, improving access is first and foremost. Over one-third (36%) of Australia’s healthcare leaders see extending healthcare delivery beyond their facilities a key priority, and nearly one-quarter (23%) identify facilitating a shift to remote or virtual care as a current priority.
For 31% of Australia’s healthcare leaders, implementing sustainability practices for their hospital or healthcare facility has also become a pressing goal, reflecting the fact that managing ESG risk has become a material concern for organisations, regardless of sector.
Australian healthcare leaders are also trying to find ways to reduce the pressure on the doctors, nurses, caregivers and administrative staff that have all endured more than two years of relentless work from COVID-19. Over one-quarter (27%) of respondents are taking steps to improve staff satisfaction and address staff shortages.
This is a striking contrast to the FHI 2021 survey findings, when 53% of Australia’s healthcare leaders ranked preparing to respond to crises as their top current priority, Today, 15% of surveyed healthcare leaders say responding to the crisis is their primary focus.
These results show that the immediate crisis mode has passed for most healthcare facilities and highlight the fact that healthcare leaders have learned to adapt to the changes brought on by COVID-19. The disruption from the pandemic was extraordinarily difficult, but it is leading to renewed progress in Australia’s healthcare sector.
Growing healthcare access
One of the key areas where the need for progress is recognised according to FHI 2022 is in access to healthcare. More than seven million Australians, or 28% of the population, live in rural and remote areas and face unique challenges in accessing healthcare due to their geographic location, cultural barriers and other social determinants of health. They have poorer access to — and hence lower use of — primary healthcare services and have higher rates of hospitalisations, deaths, and injury than those living in major cities.
They also have higher rates of underlying chronic conditions, and although COVID-19 cases were more prevalent in major cities due to population density, people in rural and remote locations were at increased risk from the potential health impacts of the virus. The geographic challenges in accessing people in rural and remote areas also impeded testing and vaccination efforts.
To bridge this gap, and to overcome the restrictions from lockdowns in metropolitan areas, the use of telehealth services exploded in Australia. Between 13 March 2020 and 30 June 2022,114.3 million telehealth services have been delivered to 17.8 million patients, and 94,679 practitioners have used telehealth services, according to Australia’s digital health agency.
This revolution in healthcare access is likely to be long-lasting according to FHI 2022.
Not only is it the top immediate priority for the nation’s healthcare leaders, 42% also expect telehealth to become an even more crucial priority in the future. This change is also being backed financially, with almost half (45%) of Australia’s healthcare leaders growing their investments to support and expand telehealth solutions, and a further 43% expecting this investment focus to continue.
Digital health drivers
Telehealth solutions are just one of the digital tools that Australia’s healthcare leaders are deploying to achieve their goal of extending healthcare access beyond hospital walls. The FHI 2022 results show that digitisation will be a key long-term change driver for the industry, as investments in digital health technologies grow rapidly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is key to these changes, with 81% of Australia’s healthcare leaders focusing their current investments in AI solutions, a result that is well above the global healthcare leaders’ average of 60%. AI is already extensively used in data analysis in Australia and has been critical to managing COVID-19 data. However, future applications are likely to be more clinical in nature, with ongoing research into growing data capabilities and predictive analytics and the use of AI for detection and prevention of major illnesses like cancer and brain aneurysms.
Augmented and virtual reality tools are also attracting significant investment, with 29% of healthcare leaders focusing their current investments in this area, The pandemic has facilitated an increased uptake of remote patient monitoring and 25% of Australian healthcare leaders plan to invest in solutions such as remote cardiac monitoring and wearable biosensors for safe and reliable health management at home.
These provide benefits to providers, patients and the health system overall through improvements in preventative health, a more patient-centred healthcare experience and greatly improved access to quality healthcare through programmes like The West Moreton MeCare Initiative that provides remote measuring and consultations to patients living with challenging health conditions.
Technology helped the sector manage COVID-19, and it is now being looked to as a solution to make the industry more resilient and better able to manage the ongoing burden from COVID-19.
This quest for resilience is one of the key themes to emerge from FHI 2022. Australia’s healthcare industry — along with those in nations globally — is undergoing a period of profound and very difficult change. Yet healthcare leaders have embraced transformation and are harnessing it to meet their aim to be at the forefront of healthcare delivery.
By improving access and extending care beyond the hospital setting, tackling ESG challenges, and accelerating innovation through new technologies like predictive analytics, they are using lessons from the pandemic to enhance existing systems and improve Australia’s healthcare industry for the future.
 Media Statement: Workforce Burnout, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, 12th May 2022. https://www.racp.edu.au/news-and-events/media-releases/media-statement-workforce-burnout
 MBS Telehealth Services from 1 July 2022, Factsheet on ongoing MBS telehealth arrangements. http://www.mbsonline.gov.au/internet/mbsonline/publishing.nsf/Content/Factsheet-Telehealth-Arrangements-Jan22
 Australian Medical Association (AMA) Public Hospital Report Card 2022, 31 March 2022. https://www.ama.com.au/sites/default/files/2022-03/ama-phrc-2022_0.pdf
 Speech: Climate risks and the Australian Financial System, Guy Debelle, Deputy Governor, The Reserve Bank of Australia, 14th October 2021. https://www.rba.gov.au/speeches/2021/sp-dg-2021-10-14.html
 Rural and remote health, The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, The Australian Government, 7th July 2022. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/rural-remote-australians/rural-and-remote-health
 Rural and remote Australians, The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, The Australian Government, June 2022. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports-data/population-groups/rural-remote-australians/overview
 Digitalhealth.gov.au. https://www.digitalhealth.gov.au/healthcare-providers/initiatives-and-programs/telehealth
 What does AIO mean for healthcare in Australia? Ausmed, 6th March 2022. https://www.ausmed.com.au/publish/organisations/guides/ai-in-healthcare
 How technology can improve the patient healthcare experience, Philips, 13 June 2022. https://www.philips.com.au/a-w/about/news/archive/standard/news/articles/2022/20220613-how-technology-can-improve-the-patient-healthcare-experience.html