Bettina McMahon accepted the role of interim CEO of the Australian Digital Health Agency (ADHA) in February, with no idea that that she would be leading the organisation through the biggest disruption to digital health in Australian history.


In this interview with Wild Health editor Jeremy Knibbs, Ms McMahon discusses how even the best laid plans can fall victim to the unexpected – with surprising results.

She reflects on how the pandemic has triggered a leap forward for digital health, describing this upheaval as “the opportunity we’ve all been waiting for”. One major outcome is that it has demonstrated the benefits of digital health to groups who were previously hostile.

But while COVID-19 has left in its wake unprecedented digital health reform, Ms McMahon stresses that the next steps are crucial: “How can we make sure that the sector doesn’t just snap back to the pre-digital age?”

The answer may be to keep some of the best things to come out of the pandemic and then work to develop the rest in collaboration with relevant stakeholders. The focus areas are telehealth, secure messaging, and electronic prescriptions.

There are pros and cons in how the government works in a crisis, Ms McMahon says: the freedom from normal bureaucracy must be weighed against the riskiness of putting speed before process. The big takeaway is that there can be incremental improvements. It can be unhelpful to set the bar too high, as this stifles progress before it can begin.

“Sometimes perfect is the enemy of good,” she says. “It can actually be easy when you don’t make it too hard.”

For example, electronic prescriptions have been a few years in the making, but the pandemic created a pressing need to have them readily available. The ADHA had to make choices about what could be delivered immediately which required some trade-offs.

But overall, it has gone remarkably well. Ms McMahon praises the willingness of different stakeholders to collaborate and form productive partnerships.

“It’s a signal of a broader collaboration, which I think provides hope for something like health, which is fragmented in terms of commonwealth, state, local, public, private. It’s an inherently fragmented type of system. And so, you need partnerships and collaboration to actually bring it together for consumers.

“Like the Olympics in Sydney 20 years ago, a crisis like this does provide a clear vision for everybody to work towards.”

Ms McMahon suggests that the reforms have created an appetite for taking more risks in digital health and says that the government is now more open to change.

“But the fact that the Prime Minister and the government are open to ideas demonstrates to me that there’s an acceptance that things have been managed well, and that we can actually manage in a crisis and make decisions quickly without all of the checks and balances that normally apply.”

Ms McMahon says the pandemic has changed the nature of some of the organisation’s strategies. Her hope is that the ADHA will make the most of the attitude change towards digital health and seize the opportunities presented by what has been learned.

This podcast was recorded on Wednesday, June 24.

Ms McMahon will be a guest speaker on our upcoming webinar, The future of health systems and the role of digital following the COVID-19 pandemic, in partnership with Telstra Health.