COVID response and the CIA

All eyes were on the Victorian aged care sector this week as it continued to bear the brunt of the second coronavirus wave. Many were also watching the poor performance of Australia's Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck, who has had his responsibility for decisions about COVID-19 related aged care emergency measures removed and handed over to Health Minister Greg Hunt.

Thankfully the outbreak in aged care appears to have stabilised and the number of facilities on the critical list is beginning to fall. This may have been assisted by moves a month ago by the federal and state governments to set up a Victorian Aged Care Response Centre (VACRC) to manage the outbreak and mobilise extra carers for the 129 facilities that have reported infections so far. The centre's executive director Joe Buffone said the centre was tracking 13 facilities in the red “critical” category in early August and that number has now stabilised to four.

The centre is also being supported by a new web-based incident management system that is able to track and monitor COVID-19 cases and transfers in RACFs along with PPE supplies. This system has been built by the same people responsible for the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre at Royal Darwin Hospital, which provides disaster and emergency medical response capabilities for our region. While it is only being used for the Victorian aged care response at the moment, both the new system and the response centre have been built to be able to scale up nationally if needs be.

The focus on containing the outbreak in aged care and doing more to support facilities individually appears to be working. But as ABC Radio's Raf Epstein pointed out to Mr Buffone recently, it would have been a lot better if this was all being done three months ago.

The Victorian government has also separately funded a COVID-19 Information and Analytics (CIA) team at the Department of Health and Human Services, which will develop and operate COVID dashboards and reporting across the public sector. Contracts have been awarded to consulting firm Quantium Health and technical services firm Arq Group to get the CIA underway.

New Zealand is keeping a close eye on its older folk as well, with a trial of Christchurch firm Spritely's technology about to kick off. Spritely has been working with two Christchurch retirement villages to trial its technology for the last year, and it has now received a small grant to upgrade the system to be able to screen for COVID-19 symptoms and for contact tracing.

The aged care sector has been talking about the potential for home and remote monitoring for over a decade and there are plenty of examples of good, affordable technologies out there that can be used now and in the future. The Australian Department of Health has recognised this, encouraging providers of Commonwealth Home Support Program (CHSP) services and older people receiving home care packages to use unallocated funds to buy monitoring technologies.

It is now a truism that the pandemic has moved telehealth into the mainstream in a hurry, and it looks like remote monitoring, an adjunct of telehealth, is joining the party. This week, Victoria's La Trobe University announced grants in association with Medibank and Optus to further this work, funding a project to develop a framework to evaluate new virtual care models, including remote health monitoring of patients discharged from hospital who are at high risk of readmission, or for the ongoing monitoring of patient health in residential aged care settings.

And in another example of practical research spurred by the pandemic, the University of Melbourne, Amazon Web Services and communication app development platform Twilio have got together to run a project using a private WhatsApp channel to capture healthcare workers' experiences of the coronavirus pandemic on the frontline using a compilation of voice memos. The voice memos will be analysed using AI tools that transcribe audio into text and automate text analysis. Frontline healthcare professionals from around the world are being invited to take part.

We'll have more on innovative remote monitoring projects next week, but in the meantime, we thought we'd poll readers on remote monitoring for the elderly. You might remember that back in May, we asked if you expected to see hospital services continue with remote monitoring after the pandemic. Readers were split on that one, with 48 per cent saying yes and 52 per cent saying no. This week, we ask:

Will the pandemic spur the further use of remote monitoring technologies in aged care?

Vote here and feel free to leave your comments below.

Our poll last week concerned the $2.9 million penalty handed down to HealthEngine for its past behaviour. We asked whether you thought it was too high, too low or just right. Only 15 per cent thought it was too high and 57 per cent said it was too low. The rest (28%) said it was just right.

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