Sarah Keenihan discovers how digital health, improved data integration and innovative manufacturing are making Australians healthier.
COVID-19 has accelerated Australia’s demand for digital health delivery. But even before this change, Professor Tim Shaw was pressing for greater integration of everyday technologies into healthcare.
“It’s crazy we don’t use simple technologies for better health management,” says Shaw, who is Director of Research and Workforce Capacity at the Digital Health CRC. “There are simple technologies we can apply, and most of these already exist .”
The Digital Health CRC is working with industry partners — such as healthcare solutions company HMS — to deliver personalised healthcare messages for patients with chronic heart conditions. They are developing interactive voice response systems for this purpose and also plan on utilising text messages and emails.
More broadly, the CRC aims to improve the use of data for informed decision-making by doctors, and refine services and models of care in general practice and hospitals.
“Data can empower teams on the floor,” says Shaw. “We want to equip clinicians with access to useful information.”
The Digital Health CRC has 80 industry partners, including 16 universities.
“You can’t do digital health without industry,” says Shaw. “Working in the CRC environment helps us to be more nimble, more agile, and to focus on innovation without being bogged down. But we’re still powered by academic expertise.”
Aged care, and health at a distance
Assisted aged care is a health area ready for innovation through technology. With partners Aged and Community Services Australia and the Aged Care Guild, the Digital Health CRC recently created the Living Better Lab to trial technologies to improve delivery of aged care services.
Enhancing the health of Australians living outside our main cities is another key focus for the CRC.
“It’s a question of equity”, says Professor Suzanne Robinson, Flagship Director for the Rural and Remote team. Relatively low access to health services partially explains why Australians living in rural and remote areas have shorter lives and higher levels of disease and injury.
“We’re working to apply digital technology to help all Australians access health services,” says Robinson. “The CRC provides the right environment to pilot ideas for managing health outside urban centres.”
The Digital Health CRC is working with the WA Country Health Service to expand technology application through their telehealth platforms.
Long-distance sharing of digital images and patient records between urban and rural doctors, and expanded use of artificial intelligence, may bridge health gaps between city and country dwellers.
New materials for knee repair
It’s not just data that can transform Australia’s health; new materials are also being developed. Orthopaedic care is a good example, where clinicians seek effective solutions to fix faulty bones and joints.
Torn or ruptured ligaments are a big part of this problem. Orthopaedic surgeon Nick Hartnell estimates a global annual market of around $14 billion for replacement parts, taking into account procedures to knees, shoulders and ankles.
Hartnell devised a uniquely Australian solution: kangaroo tendons.
As head of startup Bone Ligament Tendon Pty Ltd, he’s working as part of a $6.9 million Innovative Manufacturing CRC (IMCRC) project to explore the viability of roo tendons to form donor ligaments in human patients. Allegra Orthopaedics and the University of Sydney are also partners.
“It could be as fast as two to three years to get to market,” says Hartnell. “We’re making really good progress already.”
In Australia, rates of surgical reconstruction of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) — a fibrous band that stabilises the knee joint — have increased during the past decade.
“There’s no question the numbers of operations are going up and more of them are in young patients and women,” says Hartnell.
He says the standard approach for ACL repair is to take a piece of tendon from another part of the human body — usually the hamstring — and replace the faulty one within the knee. But ligament failure is quite common using this method.
Kangaroo tendons are strong, long and easily available
Enter kangaroo tendon, which is strong, long and easily available. “We collect tendons from animals that have already been culled for the human and pet meat markets,” says Hartnell. The tendons are then treated in the lab to prepare for insertion.
To counter the risk of detachment from the bone, replacement roo ligaments are secured within recipient knees using 3D-printed ceramic biodegradable screws.
“The patient’s own bone grows into innovative screws and the original materials dissolve away over time,” explains David Chuter, CEO and Managing Director at IMCRC.
“There’s lots of interest in the commercialisation of these screws for other orthopaedic uses as well.”
It’s a good example of how an innovation can have benefits beyond what it was originally designed for.
“Patients, the healthcare system, state governments and even insurance companies may all see the benefits of this innovation in the long run,” says Chuter.
“Manufacturing like this is rapidly moving towards being an enabler for many industries.”
You never know where technology will take you.