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Healthcare | Technology

How digital health can relieve our healthcare workforce crisis

6 Sep 2022, by Amy Sarcevic

Despite a range of new measures to tackle Australia’s health workforce crisis – including free education and the lifting of migration caps – the sector is facing an uphill struggle in the recruitment and retention of staff.

While the country’s health workforce may have grown in recent years, the surging demand for health services – due to an ageing population and the rise of chronic disease – is placing an increasing strain on the system. Combined with under-investment and inadequate employment strategies, the World Health Organisation anticipates a global shortfall of 15 million health workers by 2030.

Affluent countries are advantaged, but not immune, it notes, with, “countries at all levels of socioeconomic development [facing] difficulties in the education, employment, deployment, retention, and performance of their workforce”.

Ben Chiarella, Director of Clinical Innovation at Ramsay Connect – a speaker at this year’s National Health Workforce Summit – believes digital health could be the answer to our health workforce woes.

He says it could help in two key ways: by relieving pressure on primary and tertiary healthcare systems, and improving the appeal of the profession.

Allowing for greater flexibility

“We have heard a lot about how digital health can improve the efficacy of the healthcare system, but I believe it can also improve the attractiveness of healthcare professions, by allowing for greater flexibility,” Ben said.

“There may be people out there who want to work in health, but who have childcare responsibilities and find the long hours away from home prohibitive.

“If we embrace digital health more widely, then it might be an option for staff to work remotely for at least some of their shifts in the future.

“Virtual roles could allow us to create a more agile workforce and open us up to a much larger cohort of people. For example, parents of young children, people with disabilities, or perhaps even people that have previously retired and want to resume work in a lighter capacity.”

Virtual roles may be a mainstream reality sooner than we think, Ben notes, with improvements in remote patient monitoring already lending to a rise in virtual care models.

Hospitals, like rpavirtual in Sydney, have already treated tens of thousands of people from their homes throughout the pandemic, and a growing number of services – including surgical – are now being considered under this model.

The challenge will be to scale virtual care and adequately support it through funding mechanisms, Ben says.

“We haven’t yet unleashed the potential of virtual care with funding – it’s still very much a bricks and mortar-based system. However, we are seeing a growing understanding of the value of virtual care across the private space, so it is only a matter of time,” he said.

Relieving the pressure on primary and tertiary systems

Digital health could also enhance the role of nurses and allied health professionals and empower them to deliver stronger solutions in the community. This could steer people away from emergency departments or GP surgeries and relieve pressure on primary and tertiary systems, Ben argues.

“Nurses are currently highly skilled but highly underutilised,” he said. “Technology is allowing us to maximise their scope and deliver nurse-led models of care in the home. This could act as a supplement for the primary and tertiary healthcare space and ensure we are deriving more value from our existing system.

“It can also be preventative. With the help of digital health and data, nurses and allied health professionals could play a valuable role in terms of health coaching, helping people with chronic disease manage their conditions. If we make sure it’s not just a medically-led model and use the full gamut of support to manage chronic disease, we’ll see fewer people ending up in ED with preventable hospital admissions.”

Ben says “less noise” in the emergency room could also make the job easier and enhance people’s enjoyment of the profession.

“At the moment, hospital staff are dealing with an absolute crisis. If someone presents to ED with trauma, but there is a waiting room full of people with scripts that need to be renewed, it adds unnecessary pressure, as these patients could easily have been treated elsewhere.

“Healthcare is a tough gig, let’s not kid ourselves. But if we can remove some of that noise, it can certainly make things more pleasant for staff – many of whom are currently buckling under the stress of their roles. This would aid retention and recruitment, I believe.”

Leveraging data for quicker consults

Data from digital health technologies could also help expedite patients through the hospital system or GP surgery, in turn, allowing more patients to be seen in a single day.

“GPs and hospitals are increasingly time pressured when they see patients. If they have thorough health data immediately to hand, they can make quick and accurate judgments about a person’s condition or treatment, that may otherwise take them much longer,” he said.

“For example, if someone with high blood pressure has had their blood pressure taken daily from a wearable device at home, this could inform doctors quickly about whether or not their treatment is working.

“Alternatively, if someone experiencing a high risk pregnancy is having their foetal heartbeat monitored daily from home, they could quickly be referred on to the right healthcare professional, depending on the output.”

Time to act now

With the crisis reaching a boiling point and the healthcare system already geared for fast-track innovation as a result of COVID-19, Ben believes now is the time to seize these new methods of working.

“COVID-19 presented an opportunity to move health into a new space that actually sets things up for much more sustainable growth. If we let something as transformative as this pass, we might miss the opportunity for change,” he concluded.

Ben Chiarella is Director of Clinical Innovation at Ramsay Connect. Hear more expert suggestions from him at the inaugural National Health Workforce Summit. This year’s event will be held 27-28 October at the PARKROYAL Darling Harbour Sydney.

Learn more and register your place here.




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