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CIO50 2020 #26-50 Grant Sayer, Healthdirect Australia

  • Name Grant Sayer
  • Title Chief technology officer
  • Company Healthdirect Australia
  • Commenced role January 2020
  • Reporting Line Chief executive officer
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Technology Function 24 staff, 11 direct reports
  • In January, Healthdirect Australia was asked by the Australian government to set up a helpline as part of its early response to COVID-19 to ensure the public had access to trusted information about the emerging pandemic. Using existing telephony infrastructure and suppliers, the organisation set up the helpline in days and was receiving hundreds of calls every week.

    In March, the government asked Healthdirect to boost its staff numbers from 35 to 800 to deal with the expected surge in call volumes – up to 25,000 a day - when lockdowns were announced. The helpline needed to assess caller symptoms so frontline clinical staff could be where they were needed.

    But Healthdirect was faced with a real challenge: no single call centre provider was able to provide staff to manage the volume of calls in the short time span and deal with caller symptoms. 

    The organisation’s existing service structure couldn’t just be scaled up, Healthdirect’s chief technology officer, Grant Sayer tells CIO Australia.

    “To bring in multiple call centres, the service required a complete rethink and rebuild".

    Healthdirect manages other helplines – healthdirect, pregnancy, birth and baby – but not at this scale and although blueprints for the new style of service had been previously mapped out, it was a new and untested service model for the company.

    Sayer says that bringing on multiple call centre providers meant caller data needed to be centralised with Healthdirect Australia, rather than at an individual service provider (call centre) level.

    “This required much more than just a technical challenge – we mobilised the whole organisation, brought on external experts and technology partners and worked clearly and methodically, making quick but accurate decisions."

    We had the right experiences and exposure internally to the various pieces of the puzzle – we knew enough already from our experience delivering telehealth, we knew where we wanted to get to and which partners could help us achieve our goal".

    The challenge was joining together systems that had been used individually – Atlassian’s JIRA, Telstra telephony, AWS Connect virtual call centreMediRecords call information management, plus existing digital tools and health data – and pulling of these parts together.

    Integration needed to be robust enough to deliver the result yet flexible enough to adapt to the changing conditions and requirements as the pandemic situation evolved,” Sayer notes. 

    Ministerial reports 

    Healthdirect delivered a 24-hour helpline on behalf of the Australia government that received more than 30,000 calls per day at the height of pandemic anxiety in March and April. 

    The helpline, at times, has employed more than 600 staff across 9 contact centres. All call handlers use one centralised system to receive inbound calls, access a real-time database of COVID-19 information to answer caller questions, log caller information, report incidents, complaints and feedback escalations, and report technical difficulties.

    “All call handlers could access this system and take calls on their shift remotely, often from their home,” Sayer says.

    Call data is ingested into Healthdirect’s data lake, synthesised and reported up to the health minister. The service is still operational, successfully flexing up and down to meet caller demand.

    “We are always tweaking the service and enhancing it as we work to ensure the best caller experience, improve security measures, and provide a seamless system for call handlers to use".

    Healthdirect is driven by technology and there was constant collaboration to marry technology and clinical governance, says Sayer. This included awareness of the constraints of each other’s areas, what’s possible and a joint sense of vision and purpose toward the same goal, he says.

    Sayer notes while Healthdirect was building a service in response to COVID-19 lockdowns, the organisation needed to ensure its delivery team were working safely.

    “As an essential service, many came into the office, but a large proportion were working collaboratively from home. Most of the core delivery team were already working on existing services which were experiencing higher demand due to the pandemic so we were wearing two hats for many months until additional headcount could be brought in once the new service was running smoothly".

    Finally, the project provided a real sense of purpose across the organisation.

    “Faced with a challenge, we cut across the typical organisational structure horizontally, coming together in the war room to adapt, solve, and deliver,” Sayer concludes.

    Byron Connolly

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