To sail or travel over a stretch of water or terrain, especially carefully or with difficulty. Defined as such in the Oxford dictionary, the term ‘navigate’ is unfortunately an accurate term to describe a consumer’s experience to get the healthcare they need, in a way and at a time that works for them.
Healthdirect Australia specialises in the provision of virtual health information, advice and referral. Through our helplines, digital tools, websites and app we help people navigate the complexity of Australia’s healthcare system so they can get the right service when they need it.
Established in 2006 as a not-for-profit government-owned company, we are funded through a national collaboration between the Commonwealth, State and Territory health systems to provide our services 24/7 to all Australians no matter where they live. Our services are provided at no-cost to the general public to help those with health questions decide what do to, where to go, and how to get there.
Ten years ago, we primarily provided phone services which gave advice about health concerns and advised consumers if they should seek care from a GP, pharmacist or other health professional. We developed the National Health Services Directory to help consumers follow through on that advice by finding a service provider that was nearby, open, and met other requirements such as bulk billing.
We continued to develop services to meet specific consumer needs, such as older Australians and expecting and new parents.
Today, we are the leading, trusted national source of health information; with more than 100 million contacts with Australians every year.
This extensive experience in digital health meant that in March 2020, we could quickly establish the National Coronavirus Helpline on behalf of the Australian Government Department of Health. The helpline has received over 4 million calls in the past two years; answering questions on restrictions, international and domestic travel requirements, vaccine eligibility, vaccine side effects, COVID symptoms, rules regarding ‘close contacts’, and most recently – boosters.
In March 2021, we launched the Vaccine Eligibility Checker and Vaccine Clinic Finder, which were built on the strength of the National Health Services Directory to allow all Australians to check if they were eligible for a vaccine, then provide information about where they could get vaccinated, and seamlessly connect them to make an appointment booking online. The system has led to over 11 million vaccine bookings.
We worked with governments to ensure these services were available to the public at the beginning of COVID or before vaccines were available to the general public. We adapted and refined them to meet the changing needs of government and consumers during the continuously evolving pandemic, based on consumer feedback and changing expectations.
The way consumers interact with the health system has altered substantially over the past two years. COVID-19 sped up the offering of digital services, with Asia-Pacific organisations accelerating their digital service offerings by 4 years in 2020; providing digital services slated for 2024 years ahead of plans . Our services and tools have been instrumental in facilitating this long-overdue change.
As consumers have become more comfortable with digital health services and when other health services are under pressure, digital options offer a faster and easier and often safer alternative. In January 2020, around 65% of our interactions with consumers were digital; this surged to over 95% by May 2020 and has since stabilised to around 80%. Healthdirect invested in improving our digital services to consumers in 2017, so was well placed to meet the surge in consumer demand for online health advice and video-based healthcare.
During 2020, 4 in 5 Australian adults started or increased their participation in both telehealth consultations and video conferencing . While many of us were concerned the option of telehealth and video consultations may decline after 2020, we saw projections that 67% of healthcare organisations would continue to offer video consultations beyond COVID .
We have been pleased to see the forecast move toward video-based consultations play out, through an increased use of healthdirect Video Call. Growth in usage in FY20 resulted in 318,000 video consults. This spiked significantly in FY21, increasing by 140 per cent, and this financial year we have already delivered over 1 million Video Calls. Government policy to continue and embed MBS items for telehealth consultations has provided general practice with certainty over the longevity of this channel, and provides consumers with more options for interacting with and navigating the health system, at their convenience.
But with opportunities come challenges. As consumers embrace digital health advice, a proliferation of poor quality – and sometimes harmful – content has emerged which can make it difficult for consumers to determine what advice can be trusted. Our role is to also help people cut through this noise with health information and content that is evidence-based, easy to understand, accessible and informative.
We have had over 370,000 downloads of the healthdirect app, 1.92 million visits to the healthdirect website and 907,000 sessions on our COVID-19 Symptom Checker since the start of 2021. All our web content and digital tools provide advice and information on a person’s health concern, as well as actionable next steps – whether that’s seeing a GP, looking after themselves at home or seeking more specialised information from our 200+ trusted information partners. This approach helps people know what to do, take control of their decisions and take the next step towards better health – including landing in the correct part of the health system for their situation if needed.
About the author
Bettina McMahon is Chief Executive Officer of Healthdirect Australia and leads the Executive Team to deliver virtual health services direct to the Australian public, safely, efficiently and cost-effectively. She commenced at an exciting time of change in the health sector as COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of telehealth and Healthdirect Australia supported the Australian Government with the COVID-19 health response.
Bettina has significant experience in digital transformation in the health sector and an extensive track record in delivering major reforms in complex regulatory and stakeholder environments. Prior to joining Healthdirect Australia, Bettina was the Interim Chief Executive Officer at the Australian Digital Health Agency (ADHA), where she had also held roles as the Chief Operating Officer and Executive General Manager for Industry and Government.
 McKinsey & Company (October 5, 2020) How COVID-19 has pushed companies over the technology tipping point – and transformed business forever. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/how-covid-19-has-pushed-companies-over-the-technology-tipping-point-and-transformed-business-forever
 ACMA (September 2020) Trends in online behaviour and technology usage: ACMA consumer survey 2020. https://www.acma.gov.au/publications/2020-09/report/trends-online-behaviour-and-technology-usage
 Imperial College London, Institute of Global Health Innovation (2021) Embracing digital: Is COVID-19 the catalyst for lasting change? https://assets.ey.com/content/dam/ey-sites/ey-com/en_gl/topics/government-and-public-sector/ey-embracing-digital-is-covid-19-the-catalyst-for-lasting-change.pdf Funded by EY.