While COVID-19 obviously represents a seismic shock to every industry on the planet, its effect on health technology is unique. In some ways, the global pandemic is a huge threat to healthtech (particularly when it comes to investment capital squeeze, shaky digital infrastructure and ballooning manufacture demand); in other ways it’s the ultimate opportunity.
In a matter of months, countries have been forced to enact digital health reforms that might otherwise have taken years. Tech innovation, cost efficiency and easier access to healthcare are becoming fundamental pillars of modern government policy – the skeleton upon which you rebuild an entire economy. Some experts believe, by the time it has ‘passed’, the pandemic will have driven a decade’s worth of digital transformation.
Medical tech has been thrust into the global spotlight: not just the hunt for a COVID vaccine, but the nature of what healthcare is, and more importantly, what it could be.
We’re already seeing some of this innovation in Australia. As hospitals brace for increased ICU demand, Telstra has partnered with 191 institutions around the country to roll out CHRIS: the Critical Health Resource Information System, which helps hospitals and ambulances track and optimise ICU resources, moving patients where they’ll get the fastest care, spreading the burden across the network, and redeploying respirators and dialysis machines where they’re needed most.
CHRIS is a good example of an integrated digital system that will probably outlive the pandemic. It’ll change the way Australia allocates ICU resources forever. CRUZR might be another: it’s a cloud-based robot which can perform basic medical tasks, like body temperature checks. Telstra has rolled these into several hospitals too, to free up staff and speed up efficiency.
Then there’s the question of contact tracing surveillance and technology – an area of medtech that really only gained widespread relevance in the last few months. Australia released the CovidSafe app in late April, which collects, via Bluetooth, records of other people with the app who have been in close proximity. Singapore and China have launched similar software, with China’s system being by far the most severe (not only is China’s app mandatory, it’s tied to your personal ID and can be used to restrict entry to certain venues).
But besides the manufacture of critical equipment – masks, ventilators and so on – the biggest area for potential growth during the COVID-19 crisis is remote healthcare, or telehealth. Telehealth was already an emerging field before the pandemic. Many healthtech start-ups were focussed on consumerisation – making healthcare faster, easier and more convenient – and telehealth was the logical place to start. COVID-19 has simply kicked adoption rates into overdrive.
“It serves as a wake-up call for doctors to start ditching the traditional approach to medicine,” says Sajjad Kamal, co-founder and chief technology officer at healthtech start-up, AlemHealth. “They need to be more open to digital disruption. Taking a collaborative approach to tackle the crisis becomes necessary. It’s time for tackling healthcare problems through a collaborative approach where doctors can join forces with data scientists, entrepreneurs and other stakeholders.”
In April, the Australian government quickly moved to expand Medicare-subsidised telehealth services, with 5.4 million remote consultations being conducted around the country. What was once a niche service for remote rural communities (or tech-driven early adopters), quickly became the national default healthcare model, more or less overnight. And although you’d expect the industry to drift back to face-to-face care at some point, many experts believe telehealth is here to stay.
Professor Anna Peeters, director of the Institute of Health Transformation at Deakin University, says that, before COVID-19, telehealth was critically undervalued in Australia "It's been really low rates — we're talking hundreds of thousands of consultations per year, which as you can imagine is a tiny proportion of consultations that happen in Australia," she says. “But it’s a much more convenient way of accessing healthcare, it's a much more equitable way of accessing healthcare, and it can also give [the practitioner] more flexibility.”
“It serves as a wake-up call for doctors to start ditching the traditional approach to medicine”
Will medical care change forever?
Of course, the global pandemic has also put huge strains on the global health industry, and it’s still too early to know whether investors will double down on healthtech innovation, or hold back and see what happens. Some have already warned that Australian medical research start-ups will be pushed to the financial brink. Most clinical trials have been put on pause, which forces labs to lean heavily on investors, whose appetite for risk is (let’s face it) probably at an all-time low.
“I think that you'll see that particularly from high net worth investors, there will be a retreat from this speculative kind of investment," says Dr Chris Nave, managing director of biomedical investment firm Brandon Capital Partners. “We will need to think about ways of protecting these companies, hopefully the CSLs and Cochlears of the future.”
Global healthtech is essentially in the crucible. Bombarded by unprecedented economic forces while simultaneously facing the blowtorch of public scrutiny. The world has never needed medical innovation more, but the industry has also never faced a test like COVID-19. Will healthcare technology lead us out of this pandemic? Will medical care change forever? Or will the industry buckle and break? It’s still too soon to tell.
Interested in health tech and digital health transformation? Check out the newly created Health Transformation courses from RMIT Online.