This year’s winner of the CIO50 ‘Community Program’ Award is eHealth NSW.
The group sits within NSW Health, Australia’s largest public health organisations, with 150,000 staff servicing a population of eight million.
When COVID-19 first struck in March 2020, eHealth NSW mobilised to deliver a fast and effective response enabling rapid deployment of work-from-home solutions, but most importantly systems for communications and data sharing between healthcare providers and people which ultimately secured the health and wellbeing of the community.
Among the key initiatives spun up in response to COVID was the eCAT digital triage screening tool, with input from public health and emergency care experts from the Ministry of Health and the Agency for Clinical Innovation, local health districts (LHDs) and specialty health networks (SHNs).
eCAT was built and operational within EMR systems across NSW from 24 January, one day before the first Australian case of coronavirus was confirmed in Victoria.
Billed as an Australian first, the tool is used to rapidly screen people, leading to much faster diagnosis and therefore treatment of infected patients. It supports clinicians by posing key screening questions to people, along with alerts and up-to-date lists of patients either confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19.
And as the response to the pandemic has evolved, the team at eHealth has further enhanced the capabilities of eCAT, making it even more effective for triage and assessments in emergency departments and inpatient wards.
Getting the message
Responding to a crisis like COVID-19 demanded fast and effective communications, and so NSW reached out to numerous industry partners to ensure the best messaging tools were being utilised.
For example, NSW Health Pathology pioneered a solution to deliver COVID-19 results via SMS to patients tested at public hospitals or fever clinics, so they can receive their results faster.
Since launching in April, more than 650,000 patients have registered, with most receiving their results in under 24 hours.
Another initiative involved the integration of ‘contact-tracing’ messages with the Notifiable Conditions Information Management System to maintain close communications with patients in isolation.
Meanwhile, a consumer-facing portal was been developed to assist with receiving and managing applications for quarantine exemptions and inter-state travel approvals.
A dedicated SMS broadcast channel was also developed to ensure NSW Health staff were kept abreast of all critical information, while an outreach Health Check capability allowed staff to self-report flu-like symptoms via SMS or email has been piloted.
NSW Health has greatly boosted its data analytics, reporting and dashboarding capabilities in response to the pandemic.
This provided key decision-makers with accurate, timely information on the current status of COVID-19 infection rates in the community, as well as things like available hospital capacity, supply chain, inventory and workforce availability and readiness.
Specific initiatives included enhancing the state-wide Patient Flow Portal, enabling real time monitoring of bed capacity, and daily reports on key epidemiological and hospital capacity indicators, supplies and workforce capacity.
There were also daily and weekly reviews of the latest Australian and international evidence , as well as rapid assessment of industry proposals/ideas and new technologies.
Virtual care and telehealth are used to provide care for patients with COVID-19 and to provide services to patients whose care would have otherwise been delayed or disrupted because of COVID-19.
From February to June 2020, NSW Health saw a 640 percent increase in virtual meetings, and 1060 percent increase in peer-to-peer calls compared to the same time last year.
Many of the strategies implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19, such as physical distancing measures, have accelerated technology adoption, due to the number of people working remotely and the community’s need to access services virtually.
Much of this was driven by necessity, but it was also aided by strong existing relationships NSW Health had with the technology leads and ICT support teams across the department and its ICT partners.
Existing ICT infrastructure, including electronic medical records (EMRs) and videoconferencing platforms played a key role in the response.
COVID-19 has highlighted the need for all organisations to balance strong governance with agility, to ensure the solutions delivered could be leveraged in the future, rather than just being a band-aid for the crisis.
For NSW Health, increased reliance on digital tools and platforms emphasised the importance of having robust infrastructure to manage the increasing amount of network traffic.
Meanwhile, eHealth NSW continues to work with CIOs and other teams across the health system to ensure that NSW Health is well equipped now and into the future.
Importantly, however, the IT team understands – now more than ever before – that technology itself isn’t a cure-all for creating a more effective organisation and / or responding competently to a crisis like COVID-19.
Even the best digital tools and platforms must be deployed hand in hand with great communication, collaboration and positive culture in order to affect successful change.