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Rising to COVID-19 challenges: Research Program Outcomes Report showcases innovation success

As Australians stayed home glued to news bulletins in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant healthcare challenge was emerging in our rural and remote hospitals. The sudden increase in patients and limited capacity in services and Intensive Care Units (ICUs) meant that an urgent and scalable new healthcare solution was required to meet regional healthcare needs in the pandemic.

How did divisions such as the NSW Health Office for Health and Medical Research (OHMR) address this pandemic priority? The details are outlined in the COVID-19 Research Program Outcomes Report, released in February 2024. This big picture overview looks at how NSW Health flexibly and rapidly adapted to save lives during the pandemic. The report showcases impressive new models of care in areas like rural and remote hospital ICUs. It also highlights the work still underway to ensure these improvements are embedded as ‘business-as-usual’ practices. These new healthcare initiatives are further strengthening our response to large-scale emergencies while also supporting and future-proofing our NSW Health research and healthcare ecosystem.

Strategic live-saving investment 
In response to the pandemic, the NSW Government embarked on an ambitious initiative. Between April 2020 and June 2023, nearly $30 million was invested through the COVID-19 Research Program. These funds helped reduce the health, social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in NSW. They ensured strategic investment into health and medical research infrastructure. Permissive and innovative partnerships were also supported to meet the emerging health needs arising from the pandemic. Together, this funding and innovation enabled rapid research to be conducted to create and trial COVID responses. This led to transformations in healthcare, including a new approach to ensure patients admitted to ICUs in the bush, outback and country received optimal up-to-the-minute COVID-19 assessment and treatment.

Fast-tracking a new model for intensive care
The 24/7 eICU Model of Care was one of many notable success stories of the NSW Health pandemic response. Funded by the COVID-19 Research Program, the innovative approach used virtual care to deliver continuous monitoring and management of patients being treated in regional Intensive Care Units. As a result, critically ill patients in rural and remote hospitals received round-the-clock access to specialist advice. They also received rapid support and response if they required transfer to a higher level of Intensive Care. This approach provided a swift and low-cost solution to overcoming geographical barriers and addressing the scarcity of specialised staff and equipment in regional ICUs. Evidence confirming the benefits of adding continuous virtual healthcare to regional ICUs was confirmed by important research led by Chief Investigator, Professor Deepak Bhonagiri.

Ensuring equity for regional patients
The eICU model proved extremely effective, ensuring that the same level of care was provided to regional patients as patients being treated in traditional metropolitan ICUs. This approach was also associated with a potential reduction in costs due to fewer transfers from rural and regional hospitals to metropolitan hospital centres. Patients and their families reported an improvement in their healthcare experience and satisfaction with the 24/7 eICU model. They noted that it helped to enable more timely and effective care. Healthcare providers reported positive experiences too, highlighting how the model improved healthcare effectiveness, efficiency, and collaboration. Increased access to specialist expertise and heightened confidence in decision-making were also indicated.

Strategic investment success
The benefits and success of the COVID-19 Research Program, exemplified by the transformative eICU model, underscores the value of strategic investment. The 24/7 eICU model of care has been extended beyond the pilot study, now implemented in five regional ICUs. Its adoption resulted in sustained efficiency gains, providing remote monitoring capacity and access to higher-level ICU clinician expertise. The model also showed the potential to be quickly scaled up and embedded, offering a flexible solution during health crises such as pandemics. It also holds promise for close observation units, where it may be adopted by General Practice medical staff.

Future-proofing NSW healthcare
By fostering innovation and collaboration during the pandemic response, the COVID-19 Research Program has enhanced preparedness for future health emergencies. The resulting novel models of care have improved health outcomes, reduced social and economic impacts, and provided a scalable and flexible solution that benefits communities across the state. The investment in cutting-edge research facilities and the development of permissive partnerships have positioned NSW Health as a leader in healthcare, ready to respond rapidly and effectively to any future challenges.

Read the full COVID-19 Research Program Outcomes Report

Updated 3 months ago