After billions of people were urged to stay home for two years, it’s not surprising that the delivery of care has been altered to fit this new normal. During the pandemic, telehealth launched into the Australian mainstream and enabled people to protect themselves from spreading COVID-19 while still receiving medical support and healthcare.
Following the success of telehealth, there has been a mass exodus of programs from in-hospital settings to outpatient in-person and digital services. This protects patients from exposure to bacteria and viruses while also freeing up resources – such as time and beds – for people who cannot receive care for their conditions at home.
You’ve probably got a few questions, and rightfully so! If care continues to move away from default hospital-based settings and into more specialised outpatient services, Australia’s healthcare system is in for a huge change.
So what do you need to know?
What are the stats?
There was a massive increase in the use of telehealth across Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic:
62.1 million telehealth consultations between April 2020 and December 2021 (Snoswell et al, 2022).
73% of healthcare professionals surveyed for a study published in Frontiers in Public Health reported an increase in telephone-based consultations in their practice (Taylor et al, 2021).
60% of healthcare professionals in the same study reported an increase in video consultations in their practice (Taylor et al, 2021).
Trends in the U.S were similar, with the COVID-19 pandemic seeing a ‘63-fold increase’ in the use of medical telehealth (Balasubramanian, 2022). Along a similar vein, McKinsey & Company reported that there is an “estimated $265 billion worth of care services” that will shift from “traditional facilities” into the home by 2025 (Chew et al, 2022).
Why is this a good thing?
It counters unsustainable growth
The current rate of demand is unsustainable and is projected to increase. The trend of moving outpatient care away from hospitals is ‘good’ because it’s essential: Deloitte reported in March 2022 that, unless demand on the health industry is diverted, health workers will need to deliver ‘four times the current service level' to meet forecasted demands in 2050 (Baxby et al, 2022).
It makes care more accessible
Moving care out of hospitals has the potential to make care more accessible. For example, telehealth consultations will cost less from a gross perspective because of a reduced need for transport, less missed work, and less need for childcare during the appointment. Appointments will also be easier to organise on short notice, which – in the long term – will mean preventative care is easier to acquire and uphold.
Additionally, by circumventing hospitals in the pursuit of outpatient and preventative care, Australians will have less exposure to possibly dangerous nosocomial infections that you find in hospitals, such as staphylococcus aureus or enterococci.
It frees up urgent care and emergency resources
Lastly, it frees up hospital beds – and, in some cases, ambulance services – for other Australians who require urgent or emergency support. 2021 saw the medical transport and ambulance response times crisis worsen, with one crew of paramedics apparently waiting with a patient at Sunshine Hospital for their whole 14-hour shift (Tomazin et al, 2021). With mitigation strategies that provide telehealth and outpatient services outside of hospitals, ideally this would mean patients with less severe presentations will approach those services instead of emergency services.
What does this mean for you in the healthcare practitioner workforce?
It’s important to keep in mind that the aim of digitally-provided health and outpatient technology is not to eliminate in-person care: the purpose is to enhance in-person care. As such, digital health and technological support are not being developed to replace you and the Australian healthcare workforce. Think of it more as just a redistribution of resources, one of which is your time: you’ll have more time to spend with individual patients and consumers.
Additionally, given hospitals are already short-staffed, the movement of outpatients away from hospitals will help make the ratio of practitioners to patients closer and more functional. Ideally, this would mitigate the current rise in staff burnout and turnover.
Where can you learn more?
This is an ongoing development in the Australian healthcare sector, so it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the news if you’re interested. ABC and The Age have both shown interest in this topic previously.
To gain some in-depth understanding, read the following:
To see how much telehealth has changed healthcare since the advent of COVID-19:
Balasubramanian, S., 2022. ‘Healthcare Is Slowly Moving Out Of Hospitals & Into Homes.’ Forbes. Accessed 8 June 2022, via https://www.forbes.com/sites/saibala/2022/02/23/healthcare-is-slowly-moving-out-of-hospitals--into-homes/?sh=3255606724c1
Baxby, L. & Bennett, S., 2022. ‘Australia’s Health Reimagined.' Deloitte: Life Sciences & Healthcare. Accessed 7 June 2022 via https://www2.deloitte.com/au/en/pages/life-sciences-and-healthcare/articles/australias-health-reimagined.html
Chew, D.; Krishna, A.; Morley, M.; & Vinjamoori, N., 2022. ‘How ‘Care at Home’ ecosystems can reshape the way health systems envision patient care.’ McKinsey & Company: Healthcare Systems & Services. Accessed 8 June 2022 via https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/how-care-at-home-ecosystems-can-reshape-the-way-health-systems-envision-patient-care
Snoswell, C.L.; Caffery, L.J.; Taylor, M.L.; Haydon, H.M.; Thomas, E.; & Smith, A.C., 2022. ‘Telehealth and coronavirus: Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) activity in Australia.’ Centre for Online Health, The University of Queensland. Accessed 7 June 2022 via https://coh.centre.uq.edu.au/telehealth-and-coronavirus-medicare-benefits-schedule-mbs-activity-australia
Taylor, A.; Caffery, L.J.; Gesesew, H.A.; King, A.; Bassal, A.; Ford, K.; Kealey, J.; Maeder, A.; McGuirk, M.; Parkes, D.; & Ward, P.R., 2021. ‘How Australian Health Care Services Adapted to Telehealth During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Survey of Telehealth Professionals.’ Frontiers in Public Health. Vol 9. Accessed 7 June 2022 via https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2021.648009/full
Tomazin, F.; Dow, A.; & Cunningham, M., 2021. ‘System overload: Why Victoria’s health network is on its knees.' The Age. Accessed 7 June 2022 via https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/system-overload-why-victoria-s-health-network-is-on-its-knees-20210901-p58nry.html