When it comes to health and care in Indigenous communities, there is still a gap in many measures of health, including life expectancy, chronic disease, child and maternal health, between these communities and non-Indigenous communities. In fact, recent NSW hospital data has shown Aboriginal people with chronic conditions were almost twice as likely as non-Indigenous Australians to repeatedly end up in hospital for avoidable reasons1.
While there are many successful methods of providing healthcare that do not involve health technology, the immediacy, innovation and scale of digital health means that it could have an important role to play in improving achieving health equality for Indigenous communities.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia in 2020, we saw just how vital a role digital health can play in an urgent health crisis. The growth and acceptance of digital health that was expected to happen over years happened within weeks and months in dealing with the impacts and challenges from the COVID-19 virus; digital health technologies such as telehealth and other virtual care solutions2 and electronic prescriptions for accessing medications3 were made more accessible to patients to enable access to high-quality, safe healthcare to continue.
The disparity in health equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities is an urgent health crisis and one in which digital health technologies are attempting to address. One such example is Telstra Health’s Communicare software, which supports more than 50% of Aboriginal Medical Services (AMS), covering more than 400,000 medical records and is used by over 8,000 healthcare professionals nationwide. The digital solution has been created in collaboration with rural and remote health services and designed with supporting the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples at the forefront.
Health services that support Indigenous communities can benefit from the automation and interoperability that certain digital health technologies can enable. Communicare, for example, enables multi-disciplinary teams to access configurable workflow and clinical items to support specific programs and conditions such as renal disease, and it can assist healthcare teams in implementing preventative healthcare measures. This helps to support patients in the long-term as well as the short-term.
Assessing the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples requires more than recording and monitoring medical information; an individual’s social and family history and other important environmental factors and experiences should also be considered. Communicare can provide a holistic, patient-centric view across a patient’s entire journey through the health service. This enables a healthcare provider to analyse and evaluate outcomes and equips them with information and insights to help make more informed decisions to improve healthcare in Indigenous communities.
Indigenous communities are highly unique and often require digital health software that is culturally specific and culturally sensitive – this can be an important factor in providing the right health and care support to Indigenous Peoples. Communicare is configured with many fields that are specific to supporting health and care for Indigenous Peoples such as culturally sensitive mourning replacement terms, cardiotocography (CTG) status and skin groups.
Furthermore, communication regarding referrals and follow-up appointments for patients in Indigenous communities can be a common challenge in some rural and remote areas. In some cases, access to transport can be a barrier that deters patients from attending health appointments. Communicare has been built with the capabilities to make continuity of care as simple as possible. For example, its integrated transport management system enables an AMS to schedule transport for patients who require this, enabling continuity of care.
There are a number of ways in which digital health technologies can and continue to support health and wellbeing in Indigenous Communities, but we still have a long way to go if we are to close the health inequality gap. Communicare is one of many digital health solutions which are trying to address challenges in the provision of healthcare in Indigenous communities, and in supporting healthcare providers in dealing with complex needs in remote and rural areas.
As we look ahead to the first year of a new decade and a more connected future of healthcare, digital health technologies in some of our most marginalised communities could be the necessary next step towards health equality in Australia.
Author: Colleen Birchley, General Manager of Primary & Community Health
1BMC Health Services Research, Frequent avoidable admissions amongst Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people with chronic conditions in New South Wales, Australia: a historical cohort study: https://bmchealthservres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12913-020-05950-8#Sec18
2Minister’s Department of Health, Australians embrace telehealth to save lives during COVID-19: https://www.health.gov.au/ministers/the-hon-greg-hunt-mp/media/australians-embrace-telehealth-to-save-lives-during-covid-19#:~:text=The%20number%20of%20telehealth%20consultations,the%20coronavirus%20curve%20in%20Australia.
3Fred IT Group, ePrescribing rollout and COVID-19 response: https://www.fred.com.au/2020/08/eprescribing-rollout-and-covid-19-response/