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Epidemiologist Describes Why Digital Transformation Is Critical To Public Health

Digital tools were critical to the public health response to COVID-19 in Australia and New Zealand. Epidemiologist Karen Hay describes how digital transformation helped health departments manage the outbreak and why it's worth maintaining your investment.

When public health epidemiologist Karen Hay was thrust onto the frontline of the SARS outbreak in Canada in 2003, a lack of digital tools hobbled her ability to fight the virus. So, when Karen was leading Ontario’s provincial public health technology team in 2020 and COVID-19 hit, she was quick to embrace innovative digital technologies to support the public health response to this pandemic. 

Now as Salesforce’s Digital Health Transformation Lead, Global Public Sector, Karen discusses how public health organisations in Australia and New Zealand have used platform technology to roll out world-class innovations.

I was fresh out of grad school and had only been working in a local health unit in Ontario for a few months when the SARS virus hit Canada in 2003. Contending with a fast-evolving epidemic of a novel pathogen was a real baptism by fire for me: the sort of challenge all student epidemiologists train for but few are presented with as rookies. 
Back then, we were relying on spreadsheets and sticky notes to get our jobs done, and we had no options for digital engagement with citizens. Needless to say, not having tailored digital tools at our disposal severely limited our effectiveness as we raced against the virus. This formative experience taught me just how unpredictable outbreak situations can be when large populations are involved, and convinced me that public health organisations needed something better than the rigid, analogue tools typically available.

How technology can help health sectors during a crisis

In the two decades since, public health agencies around the world have moved at different speeds to increase their capacity to respond to emerging pathogens. COVID-19 put every public health system to the test, requiring extensive case management and contact tracing with unprecedented case volumes, and the rapid roll out of the largest vaccination program in history. Many jurisdictions turned to a platform technology approach, like Salesforce, to quickly deliver flexible digital tools to support their pandemic response, saving many lives.

I kept a close eye on other public health organisations in Canada and internationally that were using an innovative platform approach such as Salesforce, and noticed a few commonalities: all seemed to be using the flexible and adaptable tools to reimagine service delivery, ‘doing more with less’, and  using interoperability and automation for  real-time data collection to boost productivity internally and target resources effectively (and improve outcomes in the field).

No public health organisation has dealt with the pandemic perfectly, There was no playbook to follow for an outbreak of this scale, and after decades of underinvestment in public health, the unprecedented situation evolved so quickly and was simply too complex for us to be as proactive as we would have liked. But in hindsight, organisations that took a flexible and adaptive platform technology approach were able to be responsive to the pandemic curveballs and seemed to be at a fundamental advantage – not least those in Australia and New Zealand.

Australian and New Zealand health sector’s impressive handling of the pandemic

Media organisations in many countries began to critique governments’ handling of the pandemic, and doling out criticism, whether warranted or not. I was struck  by the criticism in Australia and New Zealand of your pandemic responses. 

What surprised me most was the assertion that Australia and New Zealand were somehow lagging behind others in terms of a public health strategy to tackle COVID-19. Yes, the actual rollout of vaccines commenced relatively late in Australia and New Zealand due to supply-side factors. But your contact tracing efforts in the meantime were sophisticated, you pursued a COVID Zero approach for much longer than similar countries were able to– which kept transmission rates very low through the initial global waves of the pandemic– and the rollouts were impressively handled across huge geographic areas when they did commence.  By the time the Omicron variant hit your shores, your populations were well protected with impressive vaccine coverage, sparing your health systems from the worst of the devastating impacts seen in other countries.  

What’s more, as the pandemic – and the virus itself – evolved, many Australian and New Zealand health technology teams enacted the agile methodology and scalability necessary to prevent disaster. 

Most impressive to me were the digitally-enabled, citizen-centric public health technology approaches that state and territory teams in Australia and New Zealand undertook. These programs – for example, the vaccine booking system that allowed Kiwis across the nation to book jabs for entire families in one fell swoop – were, from my perspective, exemplary.

Advice on getting the most out of pandemic technology investments

The New Zealand Ministry of Health realised that it had a highly flexible tool at its disposal after building its national bowel cancer screening solution on the Salesforce platform. When the pandemic threatened, the platform’s high degree of configurability allowed the Ministry’s Data and Digital division to create similar business process automation apps to support the pandemic response efforts. This included quarantine management, contact tracing, vaccination booking and distribution, and border permit tracking programs. Contact tracing alone went live in just 10 days!

The realisation that rapid, population scale work is now possible, has influenced leading healthcare organisations to include further use cases in their existing platform investments. Meeting post-pandemic user expectations requires streamlined workflows for staff and engaging experiences for consumers and their families. 

COVID-19 has brought heartache to millions, but the increased awareness of public health’s mandate and the influx of funds to support public health digital modernisation is, perhaps, a silver lining. Those who invested (or are about to invest) in flexible, scalable, adaptive, and responsive new tech, such as the Salesforce platform, will have the capacity to respond to countless public health threats for years to come. 

Digital modernisation – including a transition to a single, trusted, interoperable digital platform and its attendant potential for direct citizen engagement, productivity gains, and cost savings – may be among the most impactful developments in public health in our lifetimes.

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Karen Hay Digital Health Transformation Lead, Global Public Sector More by Karen

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