Australia’s health sector has a long history of using innovative technologies to improve health care delivery. Digital health technologies have been effective in improving the availability and accessibility of health care services and products, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital health is important to empower health care users and providers to better manage health outcomes, as well as strengthen data systems across the health sector.
This page highlights why digital health is important, the progress of digital health in Australia, and the challenges and opportunities for the effective use of digital health.
Digital health is an umbrella term referring to a range of technologies that can be used to treat patients and collect and share a person’s health information. In Australia, digital health has a broad scope, and includes:
- mobile health and applications (such as SMS reminders via mobile messaging, wellness apps, Medicare Online and COVID check-in apps)
- electronic prescribing
- electronic health records (including My Health Record)
- telehealth and telemedicine
- wearable devices (such as fitness trackers and monitors)
- robotics and artificial intelligence.
Digital health, when used effectively, has the potential to lead to better health and health outcomes for health care users and better provision of services from health care providers. It can also increase quality and efficiency of information sharing across the health system, ranging from increased accessibility for health care users and health care providers to greater interconnectedness of health data across and between services.
Health care users
Digital health technology can assist health care users to be informed and empowered to participate in their own health and health care. For example, telehealth and telemedicine services can reduce some physical, distance and time barriers by enabling remote consultations. Wearable devices and online applications can assist users to monitor their own symptoms or vital signs, upload information for their health practitioner to assess, and make healthy life choices related to diet, activity and sleep.
Health care providers
Digital health supports improved communication between health care providers, health care services and health care users. Digital health technology can help health care providers to practice patient-centred care, ensure continuity of care and reduce waiting times by:
- streamlining and improving the timeliness of access to health care users’ data and information
- providing real-time decision support for improved clinical decision making and patient safety
- providing digitally enabled patient screening and medication alerts.
Digital health can improve the functioning and efficacy of the broader health system by ensuring individual platforms can speak to and understand each other (interoperability – see ‘Interoperability and data development’ for more information). Efficient and accurate sharing of health information within and between health services, enabled by digital health, allows the system as a whole to function more effectively, respond more quickly to emergencies and public health threats, and better understand service needs in real time. Digital health enabled reporting can also inform health system performance and quality indicators.
Case study: A health care user’s journey using digital health (Part 1)
Chris* has some symptoms they are concerned about, so decides to look them up on the healthdirect Symptom Checker. Chris also makes an appointment with their local general practitioner (GP) through a smartphone booking application, and receives an appointment reminder by SMS beforehand. Chris attends their appointment, and following a discussion and assessment, Chris’s GP provides an electronic prescription and uploads a shared health summary to their My Health Record to reflect the medication change. Chris attends their local pharmacy and provides an e-token to the pharmacist, who dispenses their medicine. Additionally, Chris’s GP has suggested 30 minutes of light activity each day to support their wellbeing: Chris uses their smartwatch and a fitness application on their smartphone to keep track of their activities and heart rate.
Chris’s digital health journey highlights the tools and technology that are available and accessible to both the health care user and providers, and the good health outcomes that can be achieved through the interconnectedness of health care data.
Australia has an important history with digital technology in the health system, from the pedal-powered radio in 1929 to electronic-prescribing and COVID-19 vaccine passports in 2021. These technical developments are supported by initiatives such as My Health Record and the establishment of the Australian Digital Health Agency (the Agency). Recent developments in digital health technology and services in Australia include:
- Electronic prescribing, an option for health care professionals, pharmacies and patients to use an electronic prescription as an alternative to paper prescriptions.
- Medicare online, a portal to claim, update, and access health statements through an online account.
- COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic Finder, a national portal providing a complete list of all clinics in Australia, which allows consumers to compare clinics, check availability and book an appointment in one place.
- Secure messaging of clinical information, which allows for the secure, encrypted exchange of information between health professionals.
- COVID-19 digital certificates, a digitally accessible proof of COVID-19 vaccination administered in Australia.
- My Health Record, a secure digital health record where key health information can be stored and accessed by an individual and their authorised health care providers. When kept up to date, it can provide a more complete picture of an individual’s health, and is available when and where it is needed, including in an emergency.
Impact of COVID-19
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian Government added a number of temporary Medicare-subsidised items to help health care practitioners deliver, and patients receive, telehealth services via phone or video conferencing (Department of Health 2020). Health care providers able to provide telehealth services to health care users include general practitioners (GPs), specialists, allied health providers, mental health professionals, nurse practitioners and participating midwives.
Digital health tools, such as the COVIDSafe app, check-in apps, online vaccine booking systems, messaging services relaying COVID test results and quarantine advice increased the accessibility and streamlined the delivery of information to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Access, not everyone has the same opportunity or ability to use the technology required to utilise digital information.
- Interoperability and data development, to ensure seamless and accurate transfer of information with shared meaning between systems.
- Data literacy and data citizenship, relating to the understanding of personal data and its use, access, sharing and ownership.
- Security and privacy, to protect sensitive information from both unintentional and malicious disclosure.
Health providers’ and consumers’ access to, and engagement with, digital health technology is heavily dependent on internet access, on devices that are up to date and secure, with the appropriate knowledge and confidence to utilise and understand information.
Health consumers who are inexperienced with technology, experience disadvantage due to socioeconomic factors, or those with a disability, cognitive impairment, dementia, or mental health issues, could find access and use of rapidly advancing technology even more challenging to navigate, and an additional barrier to accessing digital health services.
The National Digital Health Strategy notes that all health consumers should benefit from the advantages of engaging with the digital health system, and the strategic priorities are aimed at improving accessibility and utilisation for all population groups, regardless of status or ability.
Advances in digital health technology have made it possible for Australians to better access, transmit and record health information (Services Australia 2021). Now and in the future, high quality digital information remains an important aspect of health care. In particular, improvements in standardising and transmitting health information could lead to better information sharing and use across the health care system. Interoperability and data development are key to these improvements.
Interoperability can be technical (the ability of two or more systems to communicate) or semantic (the ability for communication to be meaningful and accurate). Both are integral to the effective transfer of information between patients, practitioners, providers and services, and rely on robust and consistent underlying technical specifications and data standards. Interoperability features in the strategic priorities of the National Digital Health Strategy and National Healthcare Interoperability Plan, aim to increase the availability and exchange of health data and information, and improve the delivery of health care.
Data development encourages the use of standardised health data definitions, as an important foundation for shared understanding of health data and information, and achieving semantic interoperability. The AIHW has recently updated its its Metadata Online Registry (METEOR), to improve the accessibility and utility of standardised health (and other sector) data definitions in an increasingly digitally enabled environment.
See also 'Chapter 10: Health information in Australia: an evolving landscape with an integrated future' in Australia’s health 2022: data insights.
Data literacy and data citizenship
In the digital health context, the ability for data and information to be more easily shared and used means that concepts of data literacy (the ability to interpret and understand health data), data citizenship for the health care user (engaging with and using own health data in a meaningful, informed, consented and empowered manner), and data citizenship for the health care provider (understanding the ethics, governance and legal requirements for health data management) are becoming increasingly important. Increased data literacy and citizenship encourages active participation in digital health applications, empowering individuals to share, access and engage with technologies as part of their own health care and wellbeing journey. See also Health literacy.
One area that challenges participation is the perceived risk to privacy associated with data sharing in a digital environment.
Security and privacy
Data privacy, protection and security are more important than ever. In an environment of heightened community awareness around data collection, new data sources, methods, and technologies, digital health systems must support safe storage and sharing of data to meet legislative requirements and encourage public trust.
Data containing identifiable information about a person must comply with the Commonwealth Privacy Act 1988 and the Australian Privacy Principles, which applies to all health care providers in the private sector throughout Australia. For public health care providers, most states and territories have their own equivalent legislation. Data security and privacy guidelines provided by the National Health and Medical Research Council also ensure appropriate use of health information.
Case study: A health care user’s journey using digital health (Part 2)
Chris*, like many Australians, experienced some health problems and chose to engage with several programs and applications within the digital health environment. Also like many others, Chris is interested in what happens to their personal health information once it enters the digital sphere.
By accessing My Health Record, Chris learns their information can be securely stored and transferred digitally (system interoperability), and understands their personal data could be accessed and used by health care providers who understand the ethics, governance and legal requirements for managing health data (data citizenship). Chris also learns their sensitive information is only collected or disclosed with their consent, or where collection is required or authorised by law, in accordance with the Australian Privacy Principles in the Privacy Act 1988.
In doing so, Chris has improved their own ability to interpret and understand their own health data (data literacy), and feels empowered to use this data in a meaningful and informed way (data citizenship). Chris also knows security and privacy are very important in the digital health environment, and understands how their sensitive information is protected from disclosure.
For more information on digital health, see:
Department of Health (2020) Providing health care remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, Department of Health website, accessed 8 February 2022.
Services Australia (2021) Getting started with digital health, Services Australia website, accessed 7 February 2022.