|16 May 2022|
While the city coffee shops and office buildings sit largely dormant, my local cafes seem to be busier than ever, and not just with coffee-clutching early-morning commuters. Neighbourhood cafes have become meeting spaces and pseudo-offices, and are filled with afternoon trade as parents eschew afternoon care in favour of altered work schedules to accommodate school pick-up. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a story to tell about how their workplace has changed and it’s not just a story of where you work but how you work and perhaps most importantly, why. For educators, it’s a reminder that we are not only preparing students for the unknown future but preparing them for an already changed landscape. This was affirmed on a recent excursion to eHealth NSW.
The trip to the eHealth NSW offices was the culmination of a pilot program commenced in 2021 between the Association of Independent Schools of NSW (AISNSW), eHealth NSW and the Year 9 Integrated Learning team at Loreto Normanhurst. The pilot program asked the question, ‘Could Year 9 students use Human Centred Design (HCD) to solve real world digital health challenges?’ For those in attendance listening to our students' pitches, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’. So much so, the assembled c-suite declared they could scarcely discern between what the students pitched and the work that their very own HCD team routinely presents!
Launched during remote learning in 2021, there were five digital health challenges our students were tasked with responding to, ranging from how to get important health information to the ‘digitally divided’ or those from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, to strengthening a talent pipeline that both attracts and retains women in digital health. The program relied on online collaboration tools to facilitate small group-work and guide teams through human centred design methodology. Research included contextual insight into the various challenge areas and interviews conducted online with eHealth staff. From 43 teams, ten were selected in November 2021 to ‘pitch’ to an assembled panel of AISNSW delegates, Loreto school leadership and eHealth NSW staff. The winning two teams were then offered the opportunity to visit the eHealth NSW offices in order to hear more about the roles and challenges in digital health and to pitch their ideas to senior leadership.
Led by Petra Milnes, Director, Office of the Chief Executive at eHealth NSW, the staff at eHealth NSW shared many ‘origin stories' of their career trajectory into digital health. Whether it was firsthand experience as a patient and the profound impact great care can have on an individual during a medical incident, or responding to a growing desire to harness their talents and abilities for the greater good. In a world that can seem turned on its head, how reassuring for young people to hear that career paths are not linear, and they are not traditional. Unifying these ‘origin stories’ was a narrative of passion and purpose. Dominic Trewick, Director, People & Culture at eHealth NSW, put it well when speaking of the enormous privilege of working in a complex organisation that is united under shared values, namely, providing the best digital health experience to citizens, patients, and staff.
Why people come to work has a tremendous impact on what keeps them there and conversely (as we saw in the origin stories) what motivates them to make a change. When speaking on a panel at the AISNSW Pathways and Partnerships Forum, one of our students said the single best thing about the program was working on something that ‘matters’. The opportunity to work on things that matter is part of what makes the partnership so desirable for Loreto Normanhurst. We know that care is the fastest growing economy (alongside the green economy) and that many of our students pursue careers in healthcare. What our students might not yet realise is that the future of care relies on the alchemy of technology plus people. We must build digital capabilities whilst continuing to nurture what it is that makes our students uniquely human. At their core, the digital health challenges our students were tasked with responding to centre on people and their experiences. They were not hypothetical scenarios but very real challenges that the state of NSW is engaging with daily. The human centred design process solves problems by addressing the core needs of people who experience the problem. By looking at the problem from the perspective of people you reduce the temptation to jump straight to solutions before you fully understand the problem. Instead, by empathising with the person and really understanding the problem, you will naturally want to make something useful and usable. Something that meets the needs of the person—be that citizen, patient, or staff.
One of the challenges involved communicating vital health information to the 1 in 10 consumers in Australia who do not own a smartphone and are not online because of affordability issues or lack digital literacy. By empathising with a user whose reality was clearly so different to their own, the team came up with the idea of kiosks in public libraries. In their example, a 64 year old migrant who lives alone without a smartphone and who speaks very little English experiences a toothache and needs to locate the nearest dentist. He knows there is a kiosk in the local library and is guided through the process of accessing information in his native language. He is able to locate and book the nearest dentist, and the dentist’s office can access his medical records and medicare number through the portal. Importantly, his lack of technology and low level of English did not prevent him from accessing medical care. The ‘usefulness’ and ‘useability’ of the team's idea affirmed two things; students rise to the occasion when working on purposeful challenges and the discomfort of new methodologies and constraints for both students and staff was worth it.
How we work
While in 2022 we’ve all become au fait with Zoom, Teams, Slack and other digital tools for communication, there are perhaps more meaningful changes to how we work. Jan Owen AM, one of the keynotes at the AISNSW Pathways and Partnerships Forum, quipped that there is no “I” in “team”. Her point was that young people want to work together, they want to collaborate on projects over and above working alone. Today’s workplaces recognise the importance of removing silos in order to bring different parts of the organisation together and the value of diverse voices.
To support the program our teaching staff worked in an interdisciplinary team. To do so means asking a staff member to step outside the comfort of their faculty area and into a different way of working, perhaps even where the teacher is as out of their depth as the students. Opening the classroom doors to expertise and field knowledge upskills teachers, and for some disciplines, connects them to what’s happening in their industry. The students were also placed in small teams, and while they were provided with a framework, they effectively ran their own project, rotating in and out of facilitator roles and calling the shots as a team rather than awaiting teacher feedback. During the excursion, Dr Mark Simpson, Chief Clinical Information Officer at eHealth NSW invited the students to challenge the status quo by “not waiting for the adults in the room”. Indeed, one of the guiding principles of this kind of learning partnership is to empower students with the self-belief to put their ideas into the world and try them out. It is easy to feel weighed down by the enormity of the issues we are facing, and I think the - at times, well-meaning - narrative that it is up to the world’s young people to solve the problems can be very overwhelming. In this program, students could see their youth and lack of subject matter expertise as a superpower. The beauty of a 'beginner's mind' is that it is able to look at a problem with fresh eyes and not be biased by all the ways it hasn’t worked in the past. You don't know enough to be deterred, so you see a simple solution to what others might see as a complicated problem. I think that freshness is what Andrew Perkins, Executive Director- Investment, Strategy & Architecture at eHealth NSW responded to so well when he saw the student work. In his words, his role is to “figure out how to make the stuff” because technology should never be the tail wagging the dog, simply the means to make human first solutions a reality.
Where we work
Perhaps the most obvious change wrought by the coronavirus pandemic is where we work. For a digital health agency this shift presents an opportunity. Once a wallflower, skirting the edge of the dancefloor, telehealth is now a major player with a full dance card. Who knows when the uptake of telehealth might have fully happened if not expedited by the pandemic. For a large number of people the ease and convenience of hybridised health care will be hard to step back from. There are now applications where access to a doctor via video conference is available 24 hours a day. Of course, digital first is not always the solution and it's not always simple. However, the greater proficiency the general population has with technology the easier it is to innovate in this space and most importantly divert valuable human resources to where they will be of the greatest good.
The students on the excursion were able to interact and ‘play’ with some of the ways that eHealth NSW is combining people and technology. The NSW Telestroke Service provides people across NSW with rapid virtual access to specialist stroke diagnosis and treatment. The service aims to ameliorate the potential health disadvantage of living in a rural or remote area without access to a specialist who can quickly determine a patient's stroke type and therefore treatment options. The students also experienced how virtual reality headsets are being used to train clinicians in regional and remote areas. With the ‘remote first’ policies being announced by Atlassian and a slew of other big companies it appears that the changed landscape is here to stay.
Where to next?
At Loreto, we’re excited by the depth of opportunity partnerships like this offer our school, our staff and our students. We’re also excited to help eHealth NSW develop a program that could be scaled to reach many more students across a variety of schools. We have undertaken a review to discover where the gaps are and what we can do better. The pilot cohort of students will be involved in redesigning the experience for 2022 and we will be working alongside eHealth staff to modify the teaching and learning program in order to better identify touchpoints for deeper interactions with staff, as well as opportunities to build digital capabilities. While Dr Mark Simpson suggested that just one meeting or interaction might spark a career, our program isn’t just about jobs in health. Every student is building transferable skills that will guide not just their career ‘lattice’ but their life lattice-- growing and developing will inevitably move us up the lattice but those side steps are just as invaluable. They grow us in breadth of experience and provide space for trying something new, or dare I say, ‘pivoting’ in a different direction.
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