The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on how we all think about healthcare. This period has reinforced the drive for digitisation that most healthcare providers are already undertaking, and has dramatically accelerated newer technologies such as telehealth, in-home monitoring and access to information directly by patients. It has also demonstrated the importance of high quality, real-time health information for both clinical and health policy purposes.

Healthcare in Australia has been digitising for decades, but it is a gradual process and paper and faxed records are still commonplace. Most records in general practice, hospitals, aged care and pharmacies are digital, but there are still challenges with sharing this information efficiently.

During the pandemic, however, there has been an increased focus on the importance of sharing high-quality digital health information, as well as the ability to provide options for the public to access care and advice in a socially distanced world.

At Telstra Health we have been working collaboratively with hospitals and healthcare professionals to help digitise different systems and help them move to a new virtual consultation model.

As a result of the pandemic, more Australians are now having their first contact with virtually-delivered healthcare supported by digital technologies, and it won’t be their last.

Taking digital care mainstream

Radical change in how patients access care has been driven not only by the pandemic, but also by the radical change in the Medicare Benefit Schedule (MBS). The removal of restrictions and introduction of new MBS items for telehealth is one of the most fundamental changes to Medicare in over 30 years, indeed in March this year, the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, said ‘…we announced universal telehealth for Australians, in other words, we rebuilt Medicare over the course of the last ten days.’

Additionally, the Australian Government also committed to fast-track the implementation of new electronic prescriptions for patients. This move – which was implemented in just two months during the pandemic – represents enormous change in a highly regulated sector.

These technology changes have brought new ways for practitioners to care for their patients. Slowing the spread of COVID-19 by helping Australians to stay inside for their medical appointments is one way digital healthcare proved vital during the pandemic.

After the introduction of bulk-billed telehealth consultations for all Australians, for example, call volumes to Telstra Health’s telehealth service tripled compared to pre-COVID levels. In fact, since the pandemic was declared, we understand approximately 25 per cent of GP visits are now conducted virtually, up from a base in the single digits pre-pandemic. And at one point during the pandemic 70 per cent of specialist visits were conducted via telehealth.

These services do more than just make it easier for patients and clinicians to receive and deliver care respectively, they helped – and will continue to help – reduce pressure on vital local hospital services. GPs are also reporting that a large number of consultations in this time are for mental health care.

The introduction of the first end-to-end paperless script transaction represents a significant milestone in the Australian health system.

Pre-pandemic, patients needed, for the most bipart, to attend a doctor’s office in person for a prescription before taking it to the pharmacy.

At the beginning of May, FRED IT, a joint venture partner of Telstra Health, successfully delivered the first paperless script transaction between a GP and a pharmacy.

The model involves a doctor writing an electronic prescription that is received as an encrypted ‘token’ by the patient as an SMS or email. The patient then forwards or presents this code for dispensing at their chosen pharmacy.

It not only makes it easier for patients to collect their medicine, but it also makes it safer: patients are far less likely to be dispensed the wrong dosage when scripts are digitally controlled between the GP and pharmacy.

Patients are less likely to lose scripts, and those on multiple medications can more easily keep track of their scripts via digital means.

Telstra Health is also working with large public hospitals and emergency departments to support patients in their own homes. These solutions involve using remote monitoring to receive pulse and oxygen saturation readings with a SpO2 pulse oximeter as well as blood pressure data, meaning infectious patients don’t have to leave their homes for some care.

We have worked to reduce isolation and support care in vulnerable aged care facilities where many residents are at the most risk of COVID-19, keeping them in touch with their families while in isolation via the specialist Message Manager Platform. This helps to reduce social isolation while also being conscious of exposing aged care residents to unnecessary risk.

This includes introducing new forms within our aged care software to assist in the identification and care of high-risk COVID-19 patients or patients who have a positive COVID-19 diagnosis.

At a macro level, Telstra’s technology has been used to keep governments informed of Intensive Care Unit capacity and the status of those in self-isolation.

All of these examples show how technology can benefit the lives of all Australians.

What we’ve learned during this time of intense change will stay with us throughout our future healthcare journey, as we work to continue the momentum of implementing safe, reliable and available digital healthcare for every Australian.