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Telehealth for rural and remote communities – are we there yet?

 

Since the dawn of digital telecommunications, telehealth has been held up to us as a teasing promise. So how much progress have we made? And how has this actually helped rural and remote communities?

In our day-to-day conversations with senior doctors and locums – many held remotely via Skype – we hear that there have been big improvements in recent years. In our visits to hospitals such as Gladstone, in Queensland, we’ve seen video facilities like those shown in the photograph. However, there is still a lot of frustration with the lack of infrastructure in many of the regions we work in.

These anecdotal impressions are confirmed by media articles and more formal reports. For example, Professor Richard Murray, a former president of the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM) says in a Pulse +IT article that telehealth has allowed the development of ‘hospitals without walls’ and that this has helped narrow the gap between rural and city practices. He describes a range services such as Skype, Attend Anywhere, TeleHealth Solutions, GP2U and Telemedicine Australia.

The Adelaide Advertiser says that Country Health South Australia now has 160 video conference arrays in 80 locations, linked to specialists in cancer, cardiovascular, psychiatry and rehabilitation. This means there is less need for rural residents to travel to the city to see specialists.

This certainly indicates progress.

However, an ACRRM submission to the Commonwealth Government Regional Telecommunications Independent Review, in July 2015, highlights a number of deficiencies. It is clear that mobile coverage is inadequate in many areas. The submission states that satellite coverage is oversubscribed and that exchanges are full. Further, because of the lack of commercial viability for many of these projects, alternative sources of funding are required. Without this funding, it is difficult to see how telecommunications will improve. And without the improvements, the benefits of telehealth will not flow to rural and remote communities.

Many health professionals we work with are, like most Australians, early adopters of technology. But without the infrastructure in place to support them, the benefits are few outside the major population centres. As an organisation that uses tablets for video introductions and recorded reference checks, we understand how vital technology is. It seems that for many, though, the promise of telehealth remains just that – a yet-to-be-fulfilled promise.

What’s your experience with telehealth? We’d love to hear your views and share experiences with other health professionals.

 

About the Author

Poonam Singh places doctors from all levels and disciplines in contract and permanent positions throughout Australia and the Pacific Islands. She specialises in sourcing and planning locum work for medical professionals.

With several years’ experience in the field, Poonam is regarded as a top medical recruiter. A self-confessed health and fitness fanatic, she manages to squeeze in a visit to the gym most mornings, despite consistently being the first person to arrive at our office.

 

photo credit: via photopin (license)

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