Australia is in the fortunate position of having COVID-19 largely under control. To use a relevant analogy for an Australian summer, thankfully, we are not dealing with a all-out bushfire but rather monitoring and responding to spot fires and ember attacks. Entire states in Australia have been largely case-free for months and have established strong controls through contact tracing and testing regimes.

The relative calm is in contrast to where the State of Victoria (home to Melbourne) sat towards the end of winter last year, when daily infection numbers rose into the 700s and anxiety levels were high. At that point, significant capacity was being reserved in our health system for COVID patients at the expense of elective procedures and huge resources were thrown at COVID-19 testing in the hopes of stemming the spread.

The peak in cases also drove the adoption of new technologies by providers bracing for the projected influx of patients and the new realities of a socially-distanced world. Providers and healthcare systems made large investments in technology infrastructure, including:

  • Collaboration technology: like all organisations, healthcare providers suddenly found themselves in need of digital workarounds for staff meetings, clinical consultations and other processes. Administrative staff were largely restricted to working from home and non-emergency clinical consultations needed to be conducted using the same technology. Collaboration technology was deployed in hospitals to enable family and friends to remain in contact with infectious patients who they were unable to physically visit. The National Industry Innovation Network (of which Cisco is a foundation member) recently published a report on the current and future use of collaboration technology in healthcare that indicates the impact of the pandemic on technology implementation.
  • Cyber security caused providers to prioritise investment in security to protect data and their reputation. Perimeter-based security was no longer sufficient and cyber security became a board-level issue rather than an operational compliance one.
  • Network infrastructure: more sophisticated applications and the proliferation of connected devices, instruments, and sensors required robust, secure connectivity and scalability of networks. One interesting by-product of COVID-19 was the focus on dynamic healthcare spaces. Carparks became testing sites, general wards converted to intensive care facilities, and even shipping containers became treatment centers. Healthcare providers realised that dynamic infrastructure offers efficiencies but also enables them to provide better experiences. The underlaying network infrastructure – more than the building itself or facilities – allows for this dynamism.

While implementation efforts were not in vain, Australia’s ability to contain the spread of COVID-19 has had significant downstream implications. The health system has not been overwhelmed and for most hospitals elective surgeries and operations are normal, albeit with changed procedures relating to distancing and hygiene.

After preparing for the worst that didn’t come, the healthcare system continues to face the challenge of striking the appropriate balance between reserving capacity for inevitable outbreaks while meeting demands from patients for non-COVID services.

St. Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne is a good example of the complexity created by the pandemic. A significant proportion of hospital capacity was reserved for positive COVID-19 cases during 2020 but that standby capacity was never required. This had implications for infrastructure but also reduced the hospital’s capacity to generate revenue from those wards which had been set aside. Until a vaccine has been fully deployed, it’s likely that this tightrope walk will remain in place for most providers.

In the next 12-24 months – where there will be greater certainty about the demand profile – there is likely to be another reset. The pandemic, rightly, has dominated conversations at the executive level and made it difficult for providers to be strategic about the way they plan for further investment in technology. Providers will need to actively decide what changes to healthcare are likely to be sustained and which will be abandoned.

For example, how and where should we move from telehealth to truly virtualized care? Do we ever want to return to a situation where ill and potentially infectious patients are congregating in waiting rooms rather than their cars? What proportion of administrative staff are we comfortable working from home indefinitely? What role will technology play in the future rollout of the vaccine, including the role of IoT in monitoring vaccine temperature and guaranteeing safety?

No matter the answers to these questions it’s inevitable that technology use and adoption in healthcare will increase in prominence and priority. This will mean more resources spent on procuring and maintaining technology, and the need for new skills in hospital technology functions. Security, perhaps more than any other technology capability, should be given the greatest priority as a successful cyber attack can cause major disruption, threaten lives, and undermine confidence in the broader health system as well as individual providers. The hope is that governments will be prioritise investments because we now know that our healthcare system is both the front line of the pandemic response but also our last line of defence.

Learn more about Cisco’s commitment to an inclusive recovery and how we’re helping to support global vaccine administration.