Digital disruption

Professor James Boyd talks with Giselle Roberts about new degree offerings, CRC collaborations and a research agenda that promises to transform our understanding of health and wellbeing

Professor James Boyd chats with Giselle Roberts about new degree offerings, CRC collaborations and a research agenda that promises to transform our understanding of health and wellbeing.

Let’s face it: COVID-19 has moved digital health into business-as-usual health. In March, the Australian Government expanded Medicare-subsidised telehealth services to minimise the exposure of patients and health professionals to COVID-19. As waiting rooms in hospitals and general practices emptied out, health professionals went online to serve their patients during lockdown. The result? A staggering 18 million telehealth consultations.

“It’s created a seismic shift in healthcare delivery,” remarks James Boyd, Professor of Digital Health. “Sure, we have seen uptake by General Practitioners, but the real impact has been in hospitals. Specialists and allied health professionals have embraced telehealth, using phone and video consults, and providing patients with technology to monitor progress. Patients have also embraced the move and now they expect a greater level of accessibility. I don’t think we can go back. I don’t think patients would want to.”

It’s digital disruption indeed. And while telehealth has been the poster child for digital health, it signals far deeper change in an area that spans everything from big data to emerging tech innovations. “Digital health is wide-ranging, which is why I define it as broadly as possible,” Boyd says. “I see it as technology and information working together to change the way we deliver healthcare.”

Few are better positioned to ride this unprecedented wave of health-tech acceleration. Born in Scotland, Boyd spent his formative years as an epidemiologist, piecing together individual medical records to create linked datasets that answer big questions “about all aspects of healthcare.” “Scotland was one of the first countries to digitise their health records,” he explains, “and I was lucky enough to get my first job in a new organisation set up to provide research and national statistics for the National Health Service (NHS) in Scotland. It was focused on using electronic information to change the way we deliver care and improve patient outcomes – and at a time when computing was just powerful enough to cope with the computation complexity of linking records into patient profiles across the Scottish population.”

Boyd has since specialised in data linkage to provide a birth-to-death story for large population samples. He moved into a regional health statistician role in Scotland, then made an even bigger move: from Edinburgh to Australia, and from civil service to academia. After a decade at Curtin University in Western Australia, Boyd joined La Trobe as its first Professor of Digital Health in April 2019, determined to reposition the University as a leader in the field.

Boyd built strong foundations before the pandemic hit. Together with colleague and cyberpharmacist, Dr Kevin Yap, they have developed a Master of Digital Health that is multidisciplinary learning at its best. “Kevin and I quickly realised that digital health touches almost every part of the University,” he says. “Managing the big data landscape involves IT, statistics, cyber security and the Internet of Medical Things. Developing technology encompasses machine learning and artificial intelligence. And then there is the business angle, where the invention of technology might lead to a start-up company.”

“We’ve integrated all these components into a degree that attracts a wide range of students, from allied health professionals and nurses, to IT experts and engineers. All of them are passionate about using technology to solve healthcare problems. And it gives them the opportunity to make a real contribution to Australia’s thriving healthcare industry.”

Boyd is leading by example. He brokered La Trobe’s membership to the Digital Health Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) – he is one of its Flagship Research and Education Directors – and, in the early months of the pandemic, coordinated a game-changing CRC seminar series that drew thousands of healthcare professionals eager to upskill in telehealth.

When the Australian Government announced its relief package to boost the skills of professionals displaced by the economic impact of COVID-19, Boyd and Yap led the development of a new Graduate Certificate in Digital Health. And, more recently, he was awarded a Medibank Rapid Response Grant with Professor Ani Desai to examine how virtual care technologies, such as remote health monitoring of patients, can help develop a framework for home-based care.  

Boyd is hopeful that the pandemic has created important and lasting change in the sector. “It’s transformed our understanding of what we want and what we expect,” he says. “Things like telehealth were, this time last year, regarded as a long-term aim. Now they are a reality.” But the key to making all of this stick, he adds, depends on getting the basics right.

“Data linkage is a harder problem to solve, but the pandemic has demonstrated that we can focus, prioritise and move things along. We now have an opportunity to standardise information collections and make them interpretable so that we can use them in new and different ways. There’s lots of innovative technology being developed and it would be fantastic if we can harness this big data so that we can take digital health to the next level. It’s these simple things that often have the greatest impact.”

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