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While all industries have had digital transformation plans in the pipeline, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated shifts to digital ways of living and working. ATM withdrawals have rapidly declined, online food delivery rates have more than tripled, and specialist telehealth appointments grew more than ten-fold in the month of March in Australia.
The push to digital ways of living and working has forced us to re-assess how we spend and value time. Among the economic hardship for many businesses, the pandemic has also presented opportunities to take a step back and ask whether this could be ideal timing to change entire industries for the long-term.
Understanding the human aspects of health care
With 85% of Australians saying they are either just as or more productive working from home in comparison to working in an office, it’s clear previous misconceptions around the ineffectiveness of remote working were baseless. Employers are starting to understand that results are more important than the number of hours spent at their desk.
For many, being able to work from home has been a life-changer, particularly for professionals with disabilities. For a long time, people with disabilities have been unable to participate fully in office work. Now that many of us are working from home, these perceptions don’t hold weight.
In the health care industry, this means sectors such as allied health – which has been known to experience ongoing talent and skills shortages – can access entirely new pools of talent to deliver services more effectively.
A good example of this is Jessica, a speech pathologist who has a physical disability, and whose mobility can be limited. Through Umbo, she can see clients all over Australia using video calls, sometimes even lying on her back. She fits this in around her busy schedule of looking after her children.
Clients are also quickly coming to terms with the benefits of telehealth, particularly for people with disabilities and families in rural regions. At Umbo, our online allied health services platform has seen a 500% growth in sessions from January to June this year. We’ve been able to connect clinicians from across Australia with people who have been waiting to see someone in-person for up to 18 months. Instead, they’ve been able to see them online in a matter of weeks and receive the same level of care.
It’s time to take human-centred health care to the next level
While there are some promising shifts towards employee-led experiences in the workplace and person-centred service in health care, there is still a long way to go. People with disabilities are still experiencing discrimination in the workplace, with many opting to start their own business rather than face the negative stereotyping and attitudes of employers. Plans to protect people with a disability have also been reported to not have been activated in Victoria until August, highlighting yet again how regularly people with disabilities are overlooked even in obvious times of much-needed support.
The industry, NDIS and government need to make much bigger changes to how they operate and deliver services, particularly to those with disabilities, if we are to see truly effective health care in Australia. The old system of ‘build it and they will come’ is not good enough and is based on assumptions among able-bodied people living in metro city regions. Unfortunately, it is these people who hold the power, and it’s time that power is re-distributed to be shared with those who need it.
There is currently a significant gap in access to high-quality health care in Australia based on one’s location, disability, socioeconomic background, race and more. By putting power into the hands of clients, we can start to close these gaps.
We can start by changing the requirements around people with disabilities needing to justify their funding to the NDIS, offering online health options to families so they don’t take a day off work and school to travel to an appointment, and levelling the playing field so that families can access service providers of all sizes, not just big providers from the city.
Our health care system is robust, and the response to COVID-19 has shown that. But there’s still progress to be made. As we can change the way we work, live and value our time, health care needs to change, too. Now is the time for entrepreneurs within the health care system, change agents within the NDIS and government sector, and startups disrupting the sector to work collaboratively on further accelerating this change so all Australians can have equal access to health care.
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Weh Yeoh is the Co-Founder and CEO of Umbo, a social enterprise that delivers speech and occupational therapy services to rural and remote communities. He has been recognised by Third Sector Awards as the Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2019 and is a TEDx speaker.
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