The future of healthcare

As the future creeps closer, one thing is sure. Change is here to stay. That’s why we’re looking into the future of worktalking to leading academics to discover how work forces can evolve and keep pace. Here, we’re delving into the future of healthcare.

Where is the future of healthcare headed?

The coming decades will present the healthcare industry with unique challenges. These challenges will need innovative solutions to ensure patient care remains effective, equitable and economically viable. We caught up with Charles Sturt University healthcare professionals to explore the nature of these changes and how healthcare provision responds to them.

The future of healthcare must meet needs of a changing population

The demographic profile of Australia is changing like never before. Immigration is one factor, but one of the most significant structural shifts is the aging Australian population. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare predicts that people aged 65 and over will comprise 22 per cent of the population by 2057.

Often this shift in demographics is presented as a negative thing. You may read of a ‘time bomb’ or a ‘looming crisis’. Of course, an ageing population presents challenges socially, economically and in terms of healthcare provision, but it also presents opportunity.

Maree Bernoth, Associate Professor of Nursing at Charles Sturt University, feels the changing demographic means unique possibilities for healthcare workers.

“The growing number of older people means that healthcare workers can work with people from preconception right through the lifespan, so that patients have quality of life throughout their lives. That’s exciting for healthcare workers. More people living longer is a sign of a successful society. However, we want people to age so they don’t have co-morbidities and chronic health problems that some of our current older members of society have.

“And as we understand more about the ageing process and its effects through research, frontline healthcare staff like nurses can help people apply this knowledge to ensure their quality of life. That means things like health promotion about lifestyle choices as we age.”

Lifestyle and prevention

Professor Megan Smith, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science and Health at Charles Sturt, expects lifestyle choices to be an increasingly important trend in healthcare. Given the intricate confluence of economic, political and other factors that affect services, preventative healthcare is essential for patient quality of life and economic efficiency in the healthcare industry.

“There is a change, with healthcare providers becoming partners with people in their care. I think this will mean more emphasis on the preventative aspects of health. For example, advising people about exercise and nutrition and helping them be knowledgeable about their health and how to self-manage their health needs.

“Chronic healthcare problems are a major part of current demand for healthcare. In response, we’re seeing more emphasis in training on the preventative, wellbeing aspects of healthcare to try and break that cycle and prevent chronic conditions from being a significant part of the population in 10–15 years.

“Primary healthcare needs to be an increasing focus. This is where people can see the right practitioner straight away. That means they stay out of hospitals. Treating people well in the community is where we should be looking. Because hospitals are expensive and there is a concern over the burgeoning costs of healthcare, so the more we can get people out of expensive institutions like hospitals, the better off we’ll all be.”

A woman assisting her elderly patient who's using a walker for support

Meeting the healthcare needs of all Australians

Several of these strands of thinking about how to meet Australia’s future healthcare needs. Namely community-centred care, healthcare becoming more targeted to the specific needs of communities and patients within them, and preventative strategies. All of these are relevant when considering healthcare for rural and First Nations communities.

Traditionally, integrated healthcare services have not served these communities as well. This has been due to the concentration of medical expertise in metropolitan areas, the geographic challenges of healthcare access, and the associated economic factors. However, in the coming years, there is likely to be an increasing expectation that the healthcare system should work for everyone.

This drive to ensure good access to healthcare for rural communities will create opportunities for students to develop and augment their careers, as outlined by Associate Professor Bernoth.

“Working in rural areas for our graduating students allows them to develop as leaders and quickly move into more senior roles. Career progression is faster, and they are learning more complex clinical skills because they are not reliant on ancillary services that are more available in metropolitan areas. One minute there may be a person with multiple traumas from an accident; the next, a woman giving birth; the next, someone who’s detoxing. They never know what’s going to come in the door, so they have to be skilled in many areas.”

Did you know? You can help combat the shortage of nurses in the regions – by studying nursing in the regions! We deliver our Bachelor of Nursing1 across most of our campuses. Ready to make a difference to the future of healthcare? You can with Charles Sturt.

The future of healthcare for First Nations communities

These opportunities are arguably magnified in healthcare work with First Nations communities. Health outcomes are improving for First Nations peoples in Australia. However, they are still disadvantaged by many measures compared to their contemporaries. For instance, the rate of community mental health service contacts for First Nations peoples was 3.2 times the rate for non-Indigenous people. So another key trend in the future of Australian healthcare could well be ensuring that the advantages and benefits of changes in healthcare provision are accessible. That they are targeted at all members of the population. However, as Margaret Yen, Lecturer in Health Services Management, explained, this isn’t always the case.

“First Nations communities operate differently, and many of our healthcare structures don’t respond well to such communities. That is a challenge that needs to be addressed. How healthcare meets the needs of the Australian community is a future challenge.”

Cultural sensitivity in healthcare

Dr Jessica Biles is a Senior Lecturer in Nursing. She feels that First Nations Australian cultural competence will be a crucial area of research and healthcare education in the future.

“We need to ensure that we have registered nurses and health professionals that have training in their undergraduate degree, that they have the opportunity for skills, behaviours and attitudes to be developed so they can respond in culturally appropriate ways.

“Typically, First Nations peoples present later or not at all in the disease process, which is a national problem. If we have registered nurses and other culturally inclusive, sensitive and responsive health professionals, we would reduce the cost of health and associated mortality and morbidity rates.”

As a regional university with inclusivity as one of its tenets of education, we are taking a lead in this area. For example, we embed cultural competence into courses, as Dr Biles explained.

“Charles Sturt has established an Indigenous Board of Studies. We submit any content relating to First Nations for review and approval by the Board of First Nations staff. This is extremely unique at a university level.”

Ms Yen gave an example of how this is applied during a course. She detailed what master’s students in health services management do as part of their workplace learning.

“In terms of how we directly influence First Nations communities in health services management, our master’s students are working as consultants with one of the local area health services in helping improve access for First Nations communities. It involves students actively working with members of First Nations communities to create bridges between them and health services. Rather than imposing what we think on First Nations communities, it is about empowering those communities to make their own decisions around healthcare.”

Future trends in healthcare technology

As with many other industries, integrating technology into healthcare may be the most far-reaching development. And one that will enable healthcare workers to meet these challenges.

The increase in technological capacity manifests itself in two main ways. First, as Dr Biles explained, it provides patients with increasing access to information, and therefore understanding, about their own care.

“Rapid change will see future trends in healthcare technology enhancing consumer involvement in care. Consumers are becoming more of a partner in care. Healthcare professionals will need to be able to work within those partnerships. People are choosing the level of care they have and from whom. Patients will increasingly have information and will expect a choice of care. Technology is a major driver of access to information, and technology – like telehealth – is constantly refined and developed. One of the main drivers that may not sound significant will be the universal adoption of electronic medical records. Down to the level of instant access to, say, pathology results means that ‘just in time’ care, having instant access to results and so the ability to direct immediate care, will change things.”

Technology and efficiency

Second, Professor Rodney Hill said technology will allow for better-directed and more efficient treatment services.

“Technology is going to continue to impact healthcare rapidly. This development will help get the right diagnosis early and then the triage to get the treatment the patient needs quickly. Things like driverless cars, for instance, could have a major impact. If you have an emergency event, you could press a button to call a driverless car to take you to the hospital, and you’ll be sitting there, and there’ll be monitors telling the hospital what your heart rate is.”

And at Charles Sturt, students get to work with technology during their studies to support this shift. As an example, students in the Bachelor of Podiatric Medicine2 are developing Riverina Shore, a new virtual community that allows health students to assess clients in real-world scenarios. Students liaise with actual patients living in a rural community via digital communication technology.

Technology as a tool

However, as Professor Smith pointed out, technology is never an end.

“No doubt future trends in healthcare technology will be a great help, particularly for rural communities. For instance, patients could take their blood pressure themselves. Then they could transmit the results live to a practitioner with whom they communicate digitally from their home.

“But technology can’t replace people. We must use it to its best advantage. Things like telehealth and videoconferencing are great aids, but we will still need people face-to-face to do things for patients.”

Associate Professor Bernoth echoed the sentiment.

“Technology is important. But we must always remember that healthcare is person-centred. Now, Charles Sturt University has fabulous high-tech labs to learn in. However, students are also exposed to patients through clinical placements. Technology is great, but it must be integrated with the person at the heart of it.”

The way ahead for healthcare workers

So healthcare workers will still be the essential centre of healthcare provision in the future. So demand for them will remain high.

However, healthcare workers in the future may need to be strategic to maximise their career potential. That’s according to Associate Professor Bernoth.

“Healthcare professionals are increasing in number to meet demand. There isn’t an oversupply, but students may have to consider geography and specialisation to secure the best career opportunities.”

There is likely to be an over-subscription of some healthcare workers in certain areas. That could mean wages and career progression get suppressed. However, these will be localised. That means having a flexible approach – particularly exploring work opportunities in rural locations – will likely provide the greatest scope for advancement.

Adaptability is key

However, the roles certain healthcare workers play in the industry will, in turn, have to adapt, as Dr Biles explained.

“In the future, a nurse’s role and scope of practice will increase. So healthcare professionals will need to develop leadership and management skills. And these extra skills will have value for the professional in a system that will be looking to maximise return on investment.”

And as the sector changes – with increased technological innovation – there is even more potential to find a niche, according to Professor Smith.

“Technology will create new careers that previously perhaps weren’t even conceived of. For instance, researchers are developing a digital capsule that you can swallow that measures gas in your stomach and can indicate any digestive diseases. So, designing healthcare technology is a role students looking to work in health can consider that those of previous generations might well not have been able to.

“Every one of our healthcare professions will have technology as an increasing part of what they do. For instance, physiotherapy now deals with robotics as a management strategy.

“Students need to be ready for practice now and well prepared for the future. That means you teach someone how to adapt and respond to changes because we can’t know all the changes they will face over their career.”

A bright future?

Healthcare in Australia is already changing. It will continue to do so. Population demographics and their demand for services, combined with economic imperatives and the integration of technology, mean the industry’s future presents both challenges and opportunities.

Meeting the needs of an ageing population who make more demands on healthcare services will require growth in dynamic services delivered by agile workers able to respond to change positively. These workers will also be at the forefront of applying the latest trends in research around ageing and lifestyle choice. Moreover, they will deliver healthcare programs that meet the needs of Australians in areas that might previously have been under-resourced.

The essential part that the healthcare industry plays in everyone’s life means that investment and research will be significant. This should open up further possibilities for change and making a difference during a healthcare career.

Be the future of healthcare

Designing, building or delivering new ways of providing healthcare, something essential to everyone, means it is an exciting time to consider a career in the healthcare industry. Choose allied health, nursing or medical science – and play a part in shaping its future.

And you can be at the forefront. Contact us to find out how.


Maree Bernoth is an Associate Professor of Nursing in the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Indigenous Health. Her research and teaching focus on aged care and healthy ageing.

Professor Megan Smith is the Executive Dean of Charles Sturt University’s Faculty of Science and Health. Her research interests are in developing a future rural health workforce that can meet the health needs of rural communities.

Margaret Yen is a lecturer in Health Services Management. Her research focuses on the role of nurse managers.

Dr Jessica Biles is a Senior Lecturer in Nursing. Her research focuses on effective teaching strategies in First Nations Australian cultural competence.

Professor Rodney Hill is a former Head of the School of Biomedical Sciences at Charles Sturt. He has a strong record of research and teaching, and in building multidisciplinary healthcare education programs.

1Cricos: 0101019, 010599C
2Cricos: 039051A