Digital health is more relevant than ever. From technology to regulation, the COVID-19 pandemic has required the mass-adoption of critically important technologies that will open up access to care and bring down cost, rapidly reshaping the digital health landscape.
But not every good idea will make it to the other side of the pandemic.
The uncertainty of financial markets will most likely lead to a herd-like shift of deal flow, with health innovation investments favouring entrepreneurs with solutions that either have a direct impact on a pandemic response, or have a place of relevance in a changed world.
In short, the rubric for measuring digital health’s relevance has been adjusted to account for a post-COVID world where global health shocks may become more common, and people adopt technology as a means for accessing care.
To paraphrase Paul Keating, COVID-19 is the pandemic we had to have. Crises have the ability to throw into sharp relief the elements of systems which work well, and those which don’t.
The word ‘unprecedented’ is doing a lot of work during the current pandemic, but over the last couple of months we have seen unprecedented large-scale disruption to global health delivery paradigms.
To begin with, after ongoing debate for years on telehealth, policymakers and providers have now leapt on it hungrily as a way to protect care providers and citizens from increased risk of infection.
But when it comes to sovereign capability and resilience against future health shocks, it is clear that telehealth is only the tip of the iceberg.
Bluntly, telehealth is simply the delivery of a face-to-face interaction via phone and/or video, something my two-year-old does weekly with her grandmother in the UK.
We now need to manifest a post-pandemic future in which care shifts from the clinic to the home, with digital health solutions delivering disease prevention, diagnosis, management and treatment – at the same time improving the efficiency of our healthcare system, and our ability to access it.
Until now, reimbursement and procurement have proved almost insurmountable problems for digital health companies in Australia.
The reimbursement codes recently introduced for virtual consultations need to be continued, and global paradigms for digital health reimbursement, such as those available for remote patient monitoring in the US, need to be prioritised.
However, none of this is to say that everyone now miraculously “gets” digital health. Digital health in Australia has, until recently, been firmly and deeply focused on the digitalisation of medical records and implementation of ICT-based systems – health IT.
One big risk facing the industry is that the true scope and potential of digital health will be overlooked, post-COVID.
Digital health incorporates health IT, but extends far beyond it, and includes mobile health, connected devices and wearables, telehealth and telemedicine, and personalised and precision medicine.
COVID-19 challenges us to reimagine healthcare, and to rapidly adopt best-in-class technologies which leverage our connectivity and federally funded infrastructure.
A recent global survey of digital health and adjacent companies found that many are optimistic that the current pandemic will lead to greater adoption of digital health services, more favourable regulatory and reimbursement environments, increased digital health acceptance among patients, and positive changes to the regulatory and reimbursement environments.
But there is a significant gap in investment and support for the companies developing evidence-based digital medicine technologies and building the healthcare products and services of the future, especially here in Australia.
In the next two to three years accessing capital will be difficult, particularly when there are no specialised investors focussed on the industry and the FIRB process has to be navigated for inward investments by offshore investors.
International market entry and global expansion will be difficult while travel bans are in place. Many pre-revenue digital medicine companies will have existing cash-flow issues, and there is the overshadowing reality of a global recession.
But there are also opportunities, primarily in the destruction of the institutionalised inertia that has been a hallmark of healthcare systems. Health policymakers are now being forced to adopt innovation, as well as adjust their reimbursement and regulatory levers to suit. Clinicians and patients are also now more willing to adopt digital solutions.
The policy, business and community sectors increasingly recognise the potential of digital health. And there is also the potential of specialised investment and grant opportunities open to digital health companies.
ANDHealth was incorporated to address an identified gap in the Australian Innovation landscape: to provide programs and support to digital health companies that are specific to the challenges of commercialising in this new and emerging sector.
We believe that digital health is a sleeping giant of the Australian economy, which, if awakened, could help it achieve a triple aim of economic growth, increased advanced manufacturing and sovereign health system capability and resilience.