The digital tools NSW Health built out over the last half decade paid dividends when coronavirus hit Australia and created unprecedented challenges, the public health body’s CIO, Dr Zoran Bolevich, said today.

Speaking at the Amazon Web Services Australian Summit, Bolevich outlined how telehealth and a SMS bot for coronavirus testing results improved patient experiences and freed up more time for health workers.

But those tools needed a solid foundation to be rapidly rolled out in a scenario which required a response measured in days rather than what Bolevich said would typically be months.

NSW Health employs 150,000 people to provide care for NSW’s eight million residents. It has been undergoing a digital transformation for the last five years, according to Bolevich, who became CIO in 2016.

“I’m pleased to say that by and large all the investments and hard work that we put into digitising NSW Health in the previous five to six years, it really paid off,” the CIO said on an AWS customer panel.

“Our networks, data centres, back office systems, clinical systems like the electronic medical record and others performed exceptionally well, and just enabled the health system to continue functioning.”

The system continued functioning but NSW Health had to transition to emergency response, one Bolevich said was “IT-enabled” and required new solutions.

Ops centre, telehealth and SMS bots

NSW Health was able to establish a dedicated operations centre for 80 staff in Homebush in a matter of days, Bolevich said, including full access to health data and digital infrastructure.

NSW Health CIO Zoran Bolevich. LinkedIn.

The next focus area in NSW Health’s COVID-19 response was ensuring business continuity.

“What that means in the world of e-health New South Wales is ensuring that our critical ICT infrastructure systems [and] services were always online, available, performing well.”

A surge in remote workers and telehealth meant NSW Health’s use of video conferencing increased 18 fold. The technology chief said he needed to ensure there were ample network, server and storage capacity to cope. That’s where Amazon’s public cloud services were critical, Bolevich, because he could “burst some of this increased traffic into the cloud” to maintain performance at scale.

NSW also tapped the US giant for its contact centre software, Amazon Connect, to help establish new call centres and deal with an influx of calls to NSW Health Pathology regarding coronavirus testing.

For test results, NSW Health is prioritising its communication for positive test results. While it’s an obvious strategy, it means resources have to be prioritised and people who test negative were waiting several anxious days to receive their results.

“Patients who get negative results – and that’s the vast majority thankfully – had to potentially wait for a number of days to receive that result, sometimes up to a week. And that generates anxiety and makes patients stay at home in isolation possibly longer than necessary.”

Bolevich said the solution was to automate the negative result communications with an SMS bot.

NSW Health Pathology used its information systems to feed negative results through a SMS “textbot” engine.

Patients, after being tested, can opt in and register for the SMS service. If the result is negative they receive the result in an entirely automated process, sometimes in just hours.

“[NSW Health] Pathology estimates that they’ve saved thousands of hours of productive time that healthcare workers would have otherwise had to go through the system manually, contact each individual patient, have a conversation with them, etc.”

“Whereas everything happens very smoothly through this SMS textbot service. So [it is] a real success story.”

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