How Australian healthcare providers are navigating COVID-19

Melbourne’s Austin Health was just weeks away from pressing go on a major digital transformation project before COVID-19 started getting serious in early March.

“We had to undertake a major refactoring of that project and change the plan,” said Alan Pritchard, director of EMR and ICT services at a group that runs the Austin Public Teaching Hospital, Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital and the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre.

Pritchard and his team quickly mobilised to enable some 8,500 doctors, nurses and support staff to connect remotely within a week. New licenses were acquired overnight, including for Microsoft Teams, Sharepoint and Windows 10 upgrades.

What followed was a series of intense training sessions across the group, as well as onboarding that included upgrading large numbers of mobile and other devices.

“The work that happened in mid-March was incredible,” Pritchard told CIO Australia. “The engagement and response from the organisation was mind-boggling; staff are now able to work from home and join meetings.”

Austin’s COVID-response project has been especially helpful for doctors and nurses. 

“Clinicians can now do multi-disciplinary meetings from anywhere,” Pritchard added.

This includes the ability to allow multiple doctors to see microscope images through Microsoft teams.

Ordinarily, every doctor would need to be in the one room.

“They’re [now] able to get together to talk through complex cases and discuss how they want to proceed.”

Clinical rounds

Patients testing positive and suffering from COVID-19 are together in a separate isolation ward while another ward houses suspected cases.

Doctors, nurses and support staff – all wearing protective gear – are now using iPads on purpose-made mobile units, and are able to dial-in colleagues, including case specialists, via Microsoft Teams for consultations.

“Clinicians at the bedside can dial in say a respiratory specialist – or as many specialists as are needed – off-site to talk with and assess patients,” Pritchard told CIO Australia“This is a major step-change".

In one example, a physio was needed to examine a deaf patient with the virus. An Auslan sign-language interpreter was able to join a Microsoft Teams meeting to aid the consultation.

Austin is also using the same technology allowing family members to communicate via video with loved-ones they would otherwise be completely isolated from.

Austin has also just deployed an AI-powered suite of diagnostic tools for assessing COVID-19 symptoms, developed in partnership with Microsoft and Melbourne-based analytics company Arden Street Labs.

Dubbed ‘COVID-Care’, it includes an AI-based symptoms management solution that assesses COVID-19 patients’ respiratory and other targeted symptoms, and a digital platform helping emergency department staff gather data from hospital arrivals.

It also includes a self-assessment tool allowing people to input their symptoms remotely over the phone - typically by being recorded counting to 30 - with the algorithm then recommending whether or not they should got to hospital.

There's also a secure portal allowing patients to access results and manage appointments and rescheduling.

Crisis communications

Brisbane’s Mater Group has faced similar challenges since March with its chief digital officer, Alastair Sharman and the tech team supporting around 7,500 staff in three ways.

Firstly, it was vital to ensure that ICT infrastructure was in place to support services to move to different locations such as the establishment of a fever clinic at its South Brisbane campus to screen patients who are entering or planning to enter facilities for care.

“That was a big focus, particularly in the [COVID-19] preparation and early response period,” Sharman told CIO Australia.

Microsoft Teams was rolled out to around 6,000 staff and the tech team used the PowerApp function in the collaboration platform to create a crisis communications app. This has made it easier for frontline clinicians to keep up-to-date with the latest information about the pandemic.

“The adoption of that was pretty incredible over a short period of time,” Sharman said.

The third focus was providing data and analytics capabilities to give clinicians and administrative staff greater visibility into various medical scenarios around preparations to deal with the crisis.

“And then as we go to the response [it’s about] getting visibility of how we were tracking against each scenario so we could continue to inform [staff] if we needed additional workforce changes as well.”

On average, around 900 people a day are using the Teams with almost all meetings now taking place over the collaboration platform - on site at hospitals and remotely.

“Being a healthcare provider and providing that front line clinical service, a large number of our staff need to come into work so it’s not a big percentage of our staff working remotely.”

Corporate services teams - including the tech department - have been split into ‘Team A and Team B’ groups working remotely and onsite.

Key learnings

The first lesson learned from the pandemic has been to ensure that teams feel they are delivering value - on site and remotely - to the health service and the broader community. This could be their response when moving physical services, introducing collaboration tools or providing good data analytics among other things, Sharman said.

“The second one for me is ensuring that when these incidents do occur, that we don’t lose sight of what we are trying to achieve strategically as well,” he said

The pandemic forced his team to adopt collaboration tools faster than was previously expected.

“I think it has demonstrated that we can do things quickly as an organisation if we’ve got the will and desire to get something rolled out.”

Meanwhile, the South Australian Department of Health had over 40,000 staff ready to connect via Microsoft Teams in just one week after declaring a “health emergency” in March.

Large number of general employees had already been urged to work from home early on to help curb transmission of the virus, therefore being able to have them reconnect and address the expanding workload was a key priority.

The move to Teams has also played a critical role in supporting the important work of doctors, nurses and other clinical staff.

“Clinicians and staff recognised quickly [this and adopted] the technology, resulting in exponential growth in uptake; to 13,000 users in just two weeks,” SA Health chief digital officer, Bret Morris said in a statement.

He added that once COVID-19 is brought under control SA Health plans to explore how Teams could be leveraged in more clinical scenarios and be integrated with core applications such as the Sunrise EMR (electronic medical record).

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