Australia’s health sector is seeing a surge of collaboration

Do organisations have the IT foundations to support it?

Guy Danskine

In 2019, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency, became the world’s first public sector organisation to sell a health product on a digital marketplace.

Playing in territory that’s more typically the realm of commercial entities, CSIRO released a genomic data analysis tool called Variant Spark on Amazon Web Services Marketplace, enabling researchers to create advanced cloud architectures in a reproducible manner and fostering greater collaboration1.

The step was unique, but it’s also emblematic of a growing trend: collaboration across Australia’s healthcare and life science sectors, often the kind that’s technology-enabled and reminiscent of approaches rooted in IT practices. The trend is spurring more teamwork between a variety of public and private organisations, providers, researchers, tech vendors and even competitors.

Healthcare R&D – Addressing the challenges and opportunities presented by greater collaboration

Asia-Pacific’s healthcare and life sciences industries have seen surging collaboration and commercial partnerships – ones that mirror the growing complexity and multidimensional challenges facing healthcare and medical R&D worldwide.

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Asia-Pacific’s health sectors have seen surging collaboration and commercial partnerships – ones that mirror the growing complexity and multidimensional challenges facing healthcare and medical R&D worldwide. But what are the biggest opportunities and roadblocks?

While this offers enormous opportunities, it also raises some complex, multidisciplinary challenges. That’s why we’ve engaged with a variety of specialists from across research, healthcare and IT to understand what’s at stake, what’s working and what sort of challenges to expect.

What’s driving greater collaboration in health?

Digital adoption and new technologies have long been heralded as answers to some of Australia’s most urgent health challenges: an ageing population, complex health needs, new diseases and an overburdened healthcare workforce. A global pandemic intensifies these challenges, and responses to it are proving exactly what’s possible through rapid collaboration.

But no matter how promising the technology or use case, applications that happen in isolation tend to have limited impact due to the intricately interconnected nature of clinical research and healthcare systems.

Most in the health sector were already aware of those limitations, even before COVID-19. A 2019 survey found health executives have been planning to acquire, partner or collaborate across sectors, pointing to technology as their biggest motivation.2 Now, however, there’s an urgent need for open collaboration, and even private companies like pharmaceutical giant Pfizer are publicly promising greater knowledge-sharing and partnership.3

What happens when collaboration depends on digital maturity, though? Plenty of industries have already gone through a digital renaissance, while the Australian government is working to remove barriers for digital collaboration via measures like the recent upgrade to its trade agreement with Singapore.4 But health and life sciences face unique challenges – healthcare is necessarily more risk-averse, highly regulated and historically sluggish toward digital adoption. Research organisations may be more open to collaboration but lack major resources, while many commercial entities have ample resources but guard knowledge more closely.

Dr. Denis Bauer, the transformational bioinformatics leader at CSIRO who helmed the development of Variant Spark, says these mindsets are shifting, “Much of this change comes from the IT industry where there’s a realisation that, even as a big company, you’ll just never get enough developers to compete with the open-source community.”

She also points to IT practices as both solutions and drivers, with medical researchers and practitioners absorbing industry mindsets as they acclimate to greater digital adoption.

The role of collaboration in solving some of Australia’s most serious health challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the existential need for greater collaboration and innovative use of medical technology like perhaps no other event in living memory. But it’s hardly the first example of researchers and clinicians collaborating via technology to save lives.

Complex diseases, such as diabetes or cancer, demand tight working relationships across disciplines and locations. For example, Children’s Cancer Institute has been aggressively tackling childhood cancer and its devastating impacts on Australian families for years.

Computational biologists like Associate Professor Mark Cowley coordinate with patients’ treating clinicians to develop personalised treatments through a multidisciplinary process and partner with other researchers to share data that helps identify trends and new drug targets.

“For instance, we share containers, workflows and data with other countries’ researchers to see if, by aggregating patient data, we can find some interesting biology about where brain cancer subtypes may be new drug targets,” says Professor Cowley.

He explains that pharma organisations are using similar methods to identify common genetic changes between different types of cancer, helping them invest R&D efforts in new drug targets.

More integrated, digitally enabled health systems are also key to helping patients access the preventive care and treatments that already exist. These would draw on a range of data sets, including factors like nutrition or lifestyle, and use predictive analytics to provide real-time prescriptive insights.

But, in both life sciences research and the provision of healthcare, there are common foundational gaps that can stymie progress.

Foundational hurdles for collaboration: technology, regulation and security

Digital adoption and growing collaboration hold enormous promise for Australia’s economy, health outcomes and public well-being. Realising their full potential depends on a broader kind of meta-collaboration that can strengthen the groundwork for secure research, connection and partnership.

Underlying technological infrastructure hasn’t always kept pace with collaborative trends, and digital maturity varies dramatically between sectors and organisations. For instance, Dr. Bauer says that even some of the biggest and most exciting projects run into speedbumps like navigating the various cloud providers of each participant. Similarly, the Institute’s Professor Cowley describes siloed data sets between research partners as a major collaboration barrier if organisations can’t establish workflows across different clouds.

The Global Interconnection Index (GXI) Volume 3 projected interconnection bandwidth for healthcare and life sciences would achieve a combined annual growth rate of 71% by 2022, indicating that organisations are working to build bridges.5 But ensuring organisations have the right IT foundations and strategies will depend on more than the technology alone.

Part of that is due to disparate regulatory frameworks and legal jurisdictions that govern how health data can be used. Dr. Bauer notes that COVID-19 has evaporated the usual red tape and that she’s personally witnessed an unprecedented level of knowledge-sharing. However, while new digital mindsets will probably endure, she says processes are already starting to snap back.

Relatedly, cybersecurity and patient privacy are two critical areas of concern, especially with mounting security threats to Australia’s health sector. Health organisations play a prominent role in the federal government’s proposed cyber strategy, meaning they could see new security regulations but also new opportunities for public-private partnerships. 6

What’s the bottom line?

Organisations across healthcare and life sciences are doubling down on digitally enabled collaboration and delivering tangible progress that illustrates the necessity of more open, integrated approaches.

To continue building on this progress, a richer array of organisations will need to embed themselves more deeply into health and research ecosystems. From IT architecture to public policy to cybersecurity, the continued benefits of health collaboration rely on building relationships with and between other sectors and industries.

For deeper insights and examples, download the Healthcare R&D Report or check out our webinar discussion with CSIRO’s Dr. Bauer and other leaders in this space.

Reference:

  1. Yolanda Redrup (2019). The Australian Financial Review. CSIRO takes genome product to the world on Amazon
  2. PwC (2019). Health Research Institute executive survey
  3. Pfizer (2020). Press release. Pfizer outlines five-point plan to battle COVID-19
  4. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (2020). Australia-Singapore Digital Economy Agreement: summary of key outcomes
  5. Equinix (2019). GXI Vol. 3.0
  6. Department of Home Affairs (2020). Australia’s Cyber Security Strategy 2020
Guy Danskine
Guy Danskine Managing Director, Australia