I want you to imagine waking up tomorrow, and not being able to get out of bed. Feeling so much pain in your body, that you can’t move – you can’t even think.
Over 3 million Australians with illnesses like chronic pain don’t have to imagine – this is their reality. The problem is not just physical pain, and physical damage, but psychological damage, stress, anxiety, and unhelpful beliefs like “I will never walk again”.
Now imagine that you have to communicate your pain, your stress, your feelings, to your doctor in a language that is NOT your first language.
How would you feel? Would you even seek treatment?
The answer is usually, no.
Help-seeking behaviour and the impact on healthcare services
At least one in four young people don’t seek help for healthcare conditions, particularly where mental health is concerned. This figure is even worse for people from diverse populations, such as those from minority backgrounds, where English is a barrier.
So what does this lead to? It leads to patients developing chronic conditions, and eventually becoming a greater burden on our healthcare system.
Let’s put this into a business context for healthcare providers.
There is a massive minority population in Australia, with nearly 30% of Australians speaking a language other than for English as the primary language at home. Assuming that half of that population (3.6 million people) refrains from seeking help due to language barriers, and have a similar health spending pattern to the rest of the population, this would result in a loss of $9 billion in revenue for the primary health care sector alone.
So the question is, how can healthcare providers adapt to increase accessibility of their services to engage Australians who experience social and cultural barriers to accessing healthcare?
The answer: embrace digital transformation!
As one of the 3 million Australians experiencing chronic pain, and belonging to a minority population myself, my vision is that we can leverage technology to enable early intervention and increase healthcare accessibility for the most vulnerable populations.
So here’s my take on three ways in which digital health transformation can increase accessibility to diversity in many shapes and forms.
#1: Digital health increases healthcare accessibility to patients in remote areas
Increasingly Australians are moving out of metro regions where most services are available and as we saw during COVID19, these groups were severely affected by lockdown restrictions.
What’s the solution? Offering telehealth services via phone as a key offering for patients who don’t require physical check-ups, and in-between appointments. While telehealth is the first digital service that comes to mind, it is certainly not the only digital health service that can be delivered remotely. For instance, 71% of consumers prefer to complete health documentation online compared to in-person or mail forms, suggesting that patient data collection can be completed remotely as well.
#2: Digital health increases healthcare accessibility to patients with chronic conditions
Patients with asthma and those genetically predisposed to viral and bacterial infections were some of the first to be alienated from public places.
What’s the solution? For healthcare and fitness providers (e.g. physiotherapy clinics, gyms, pilates studios) to have online class options for patients to access on an ongoing basis. This is strongly supported by the fact that 81% of consumers were unwilling to attend healthcare appointments that were not COVID-19 related.
#3: Digital health increases healthcare accessibility to patients from minority backgrounds
Younger populations, Australians speaking a language other than English, and those of us from collectivist cultures, where speaking up about mental health is stigmatized, are significantly less likely to disclose health issues to practitioners.
What’s the solution? Replace archaic paper forms that are filled to get into a clinic, with digital onboarding forms (to familiarise patients with the service) that can be filled remotely, including Google translation capabilities for the key minority groups in Australia (e.g. Chinese, Greek, Italian, Indian)
It’s not really doom and gloom for healthcare post-COVID19
A recent consumer poll suggests room for growth in the digital health services sector, with consumers reporting greater satisfaction with digital health services, compared to digital banking, telecommunications and insurance.
Another survey reveals that nearly half of digital health companies are optimistic about the impact of COVID-19 on their business.
“COVID-19 has dented our business plans in the short term, but in the long run we firmly believe that the situation will result in the acceleration and wide adoption of digital solutions, especially those with a remote care component”.
Digital healthcare has certainly come a long way, but we have a long way more to go to increase accessibility to those who need it the most.
How do we do this as healthcare providers? By treating technology as a central piece of the puzzle, and as a crucial element in the healthcare ecosystem – on par with other determining factors, such as, healthcare policy and evidence-based interventions and research. This will help providers to address often overlooked social barriers to Australians accessing healthcare, and thus increase their reach, impact, and revenue.
The future is bright
The pandemic has only accelerated digitisation and implementation of digital health technologies to support the patient-practitioner journey. We won’t just use technology for treatment, but for patient onboarding, diagnosis, and outcome tracking. We increasingly have the opportunity to deliver seamless healthcare experiences, from the time a patient books in their appointment, to the day before they arrive, the day they arrive, in-between their visits and beyond. We have the unique opportunity to take a holistic, patient-centred approach in providing value-based care to every single Australian.
We used to envision being able to “walk” with a patient on their journey. The digital revolution spurred by COVID-19 is truly enabling us to turn that vision into reality.
About the author
Ravini Fernando is a psychological scientist combining her passions for people and data by pursuing a PhD in psychology at the University of Melbourne. In her research she explores the how can we encourage people to change unhelpful attitudes and behaviours. She is also a technology strategy consultant for a leading consultancy on large-scale digital transformation to create innovative technologies that transcend time and space. Inspired by her own experience with chronic pain, she served as a Consumer Health Commissioner for CHF. Ravini has seven years’ experience in data-analysis and health behaviour research at the University of Melbourne, Florey Institute, Cancer Council, and UNSW.