Emma Barrett, Public Sector Lead Microsoft New Zealand, discusses the future of health and technology in New Zealand.
Healthcare and technology have always been intrinsically linked. In many ways the two sectors complement and drive each other forward. Technology has enabled significant advancements in how healthcare professionals explore, diagnose and treat the human body, while at the same time the arrival of new diseases and global or local trends also creates a need for newer, better and more innovative technology to predict and prevent illness.
Since its inception, Microsoft has been working with healthcare organisations around the world to help streamline systems and foster better collaboration, provide greater access to healthcare services and enable more personalised care. Whether it’s the simple use of a collaboration tool like Teams to coordinate different departments, or the use of AI and bots to provide automated online health services that are more effective and efficient, technology has played a crucial role.
While technological innovation in healthcare has advanced steadily over time, the unexpected arrival of COVID-19 drastically accelerated the adoption of many platforms and services.
This year has amplified the importance of modern, well-managed healthcare systems globally. A once-in-a-century pandemic that has seen borders close, nations lock down, economies shrink and, most importantly, healthcare systems overload, means the onus on healthcare providers has never been greater to explore how technology could support better patient outcomes and build a more resilient healthcare sector going forward.
The digital path to improved access and cross-sector collaboration
In New Zealand, the COVID-19 outbreak demonstrated how technology is an enabler of organisational resilience as well as the key to addressing geographical inequities in healthcare provision.
Before the pandemic arrived, many healthcare providers had recognised the importance of migrating their services to the cloud, taking their first steps along the path. Those who were further along their journey were already in a good position to enable remote working and rapid crisis response. Having business–critical tools and documents in the cloud creates more resilience across each organisation, enables better communication and collaboration across teams and also makes it easier to roll out other tools when a crisis strikes.
Take the Canterbury District Health Board, for example. The experience of the Christchurch earthquakes had given CDHB early insight into how it could build a more resilient system where access to crucial patient data and the ability to collaborate weren’t reliant on access to buildings. Digital transformation was already well underway when COVID-19 hit, enabling CDHB to deploy Microsoft Teams to 4,700 of its support staff and clinicians within days. This meant CDHB’s Emergency Operations Centre could use Microsoft’s Blackboard platform and Teams Tasks features to swiftly co-ordinate the re-deployment of buildings and staff to manage the pandemic and set up Community Based Assessment Centres (CBACs) where needed.
The use of Teams has not only helped bridge the communication gap but allowed surgeons and GPs to continue learning and performing essential tasks. For example, in Christchurch, clinicians use Teams for virtual multi-disciplinary meetings to confer on complex medical cases, reducing the amount of time and resources required and making treatment more efficient. There are now plans underway across various regional DHBs to use applications like Teams permanently for virtual appointments, so patients can book and attend consultations without having to travel. It’s the next step in the evolution of telehealth that will help address longstanding inequities of access to health services, make a patient’s entire journey through the health system much easier to monitor, and treatments easier to integrate and follow up.
Local software vendor Snapcomms has also been working with hospitals to design an instant communications tool that many hospitals use to disseminate critical information to doctors and nurses, keeping them up to speed with essential advice, government announcements and critical operational issues. At times of crisis, like the COVID–19 outbreak, this has seen the seamless delivery of time-critical information in a way that ensures it doesn’t get lost or slowed down in a nest of emails.
So, what does the future hold?
The important lesson is not to waste the insights the lockdown has given us, but use them to inform what other improvements could be made. Many DHBs around the country are already exploring how else simple technologies can be used, such as setting up Teams on tablets in different rooms in the hospital to allow quick room to room video communication. No more “paging Dr Ropata”.
But it won’t just be collaboration tools being utilised in the future – there are vast opportunities to explore new frontiers like artificial intelligence. We know from our research that AI and machine learning tools have the ability to improve survival rates and wellness across the globe, so expect to see a greater saturation of these tools in the post–COVID world.
We’ll also continue to see the use of chatbots to solve basic medical problems. Chatbots can assist in triage, making accurate assessments of a patient’s symptoms and providing a detailed report, so medical staff can focus on treatment, or help reduce doctors’ visits for simple issues by giving advice in the home. The iMOKO app is another Kiwi success story that you can expect to hear more about. It allows schools and kohanga reo in underprivileged communities to diagnose students’ health issues quickly without requiring parents to make expensive doctors’ visits. Schools can input symptoms that iMOKO’s smart machine learning turns into an initial diagnosis, backed up by a team of skilled staff, so untreated conditions like head lice and strep throat are picked up before they can become serious.
AI and connected devices can also learn to spot danger signals, predicting health events like strokes or diabetic shock by monitoring subtle changes in people’s bodies before they themselves might be aware. Correctly predicting such events can help prevent them occurring, ensuring people get the right treatment in time.
The evolution of big data will also reach another level and this will start to allow healthcare providers to understand more about patients and make more informed decisions. Here in New Zealand, Canterbury District Health Board has been working alongside other healthcare organisations in the South Island to develop their cloud-based HealthOne platform, facilitating the sharing of crucial patient notes between providers and helping improve treatment across the region. It stores everything from patients’ prescribed medications to test results and GP records, with users ranging from GPs to pharmacists, nurses, clinicians from rehabilitation service Laura Fergusson Trust and authorised hospital employees.
The growth of such regional data repositories will enable greater sharing of essential information across providers and ultimately, a more cohesive, visible journey throughout the healthcare system for patients.
It’s impressive what New Zealand’s healthcare sector has been able to achieve in the short space of time since COVID-19 reached our shores. However, as we get used to a new normal, we absolutely can’t take our foot off the pedal. Leaning in to even further technological change and embracing the lessons already learned will spur both technology and healthcare sectors further along the road to better patient outcomes and more equitable and innovative services for generations to come.