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Digital health: tools for shaping the future

Published 29 March 2019

Digital health technologies are powerful tools for modernising health and care. We survey their roles in shaping the future of healthcare in Australia and internationally.

You may be familiar with the Agency’s National Digital Health Strategy and Framework for Action, both of which emphasise the importance of digital health technologies for the evolution of health and care in Australia. Let’s investigate where digital health fits into the broader project of modernising health and care around the world.

We’ll focus on the perspectives of two organisations not only dedicated to digital solutions: Australia’s CSIRO and the UK’s NHS.1 What do they have to say?

Man and child at doctor consultation

What are the strengths and limitations of digital health technologies?

CSIRO Future of Health report

In September last year, Australia’s CSIRO published a wide-ranging report on the future of health that acknowledged the excellent performance of our health system. Importantly the report highlighted concerns about extended periods of ill-health, widespread obesity, low levels of health literacy and the pervasive life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australian populations. To address these issues, the report advocates a greater shift in focus towards a greater emphasis on preventive health solutions.

Digital health technologies are singled out as playing a key role in enabling this shift:

Digital technologies could assist many of the necessary changes – complementing the role of health professionals and providing consumers with greater autonomy in their health and wellbeing management… The sector will need to consider how to facilitate greater uptake of novel and effective health solutions; [and] how to provide health professionals and organisations with the necessary support required to successfully navigate change. (p. vii)

This finding is supported by the survey findings that call for greater engagement with electronic health records, improved interoperability between clinical systems and establishing greater trust in digital tools.

The impact of this emerging wave of digitally enabled health comes into focus in a series of scenarios outlined in the report (pp. 14-21) that describe the contrasting lifestyles of digitally literate “healthy and highly engaged” consumers with the relatively unhealthy “passively engaged”, who generally avoid any kind of proactive health management underlines the importance of promoting digital literacy to ensure universal access to the benefits of digital health for greater health outcomes

NHS Long Term Plan

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) recently published its long term plan, which outlines a 10 year goal ensuring the UK has “a service fit for the future”. The NHS Both Australia and the UK have health systems that are among the best in the world. Both reports seek to enhance the prevention of ill health and reduce inequalities in care delivery.

Five major changes to the NHS service model are proposed:

  1. A boost to out of hospital care that dissolves the divide between primary and community health services
  2. Redesigned emergency hospital services
  3. Consumer empowerment and greater personalisation of healthcare
  4. Digitally enabled primary and outpatient care
  5. An increased focus on population health

Each of these changes will be enabled by digital health technologies. Out of hospital care will be enhanced through personal health records, as well as home-based and wearable monitors. Emergency departments will benefit from the Emergency Care Data Set to enable better tracking of care delivery. The NHS App will empower consumers by providing advice and greater convenience. And the focus on population health is of course reliant on the collection and analysis of high quality health data.

Digital health is discussed in a dedicated chapter, which begins as follows:

Virtually every aspect of modern life has been, and will continue to be, radically reshaped by innovation and technology – and healthcare is no exception. Sustained advances in computing and the democratisation of information are driving choice and control throughout our daily lives, giving us heightened expectations around digital services. Technology is continually opening up new possibilities for prevention, care and treatment. (p.91)

For the NHS, digital technologies promise to empower consumers through more convenient access to services, as well as control over their medical records, assist clinical decision making through AI and decision support tools, support the development of new treatments by linking clinical, genomic and other data, and to promote an innovative health IT industry.

As outlined in the CSIRO report, digital health is inextricably bound up in the NHS’s plan for the next ten years. Digital health is not the only tool available to those who seek to modernise health, but its power and versatility are undeniably key enablers of the future of health and care.

  1. CSIRO = Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation; NHS = National Health Service. 

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