In 2019, Australia’s national science agency CSIRO 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 VariantSpark on Amazon Web Services Marketplace, enabling researchers to create advanced cloud architectures in a reproducible manner and fostering greater collaboration.
Though the step was unique, 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. It’s a trend that’s seeing increasing teamwork between a variety of public and private organisations, healthcare providers, research institutions, tech vendors and even competitors.
What’s driving greater collaboration in health?
Digital adoption and new technologies have long been touted as answers to some of Australia’s most urgent health challenges: an ageing population, complex health needs, new diseases like COVID-19 and an overburdened healthcare workforce. Now, a global pandemic has intensified these challenges and responses to it are proving exactly what’s possible through rapid collaboration.
However, 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.
Organisations across Australia’s health sector — and even those adjacent to it — have seemed aware of the limitations of going at it alone, 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. Now, however, the pandemic has hastened open collaboration and even private companies like pharmaceutical giant Pfizer are publicly promising greater knowledge sharing and partnership.
What happens when collaboration depends on digital maturity, though? Plenty of industries have already gone through a digital evolution, while the Australian Government is working to refine or remove barriers for digital partnership via measures like the recent upgrade to its trade agreement with Singapore. But health and life sciences face unique challenges — health care is necessarily more risk averse, highly regulated and historically sluggish towards 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 VariantSpark, 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 said.
Dr Bauer 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 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 from Children’s Cancer Institute 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 previously hidden signals, such as biologically similar brain tumours, driven by the same potentially treatable genetic changes,” Professor Cowley said.
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 developing new therapeutic compounds.
More integrated, digitally enabled health systems are also key to helping patients access the preventative care and treatments that already exist. These would draw on a range of datasets, 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 health care, 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 wellbeing. 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 datasets between research partners as a major collaboration barrier if organisations can’t establish workflows across different clouds.
Perhaps even more challenging are the 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.
What’s the bottom line?
Organisations across health care 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.
These are complex, multidisciplinary challenges. That’s why we’ve engaged with a variety of specialists from across research, health care and IT to understand what’s at stake, what’s working and what sort of challenges to expect.
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