Telehealth revolutionises regional medical care

West Australian GP Mike Civil demonstrates a video consultation. Photo: Keith J Smith THE Johnson Space Centre, on the outskirts of Houston,Texas, is an unlikely birthplace for a scheme transforming healthcare inregional Australia.
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The idea of online patient consultations was first developedby NASA boffins during the 1960s after the need emerged to remotely monitor thehealth of astronauts.

Nearly 50 years later, telehealth is sweeping through ruraland regional Australia, breaking down barriers country residents have longencountered just to see a doctor or specialist.

Since Medicare rebates were extended to include telehealthsessions in the middle of last year, the number of recorded consultations hasexploded by up to 660 per cent.

Its surging popularity is no surprise to Denise Dillon,whose teenage son’s recovery after falling into a fire in 2010 was made easierand cheaper by telehealth.

Online conferencing spared her son from taking gruelling 320kilometre trips between the remote Victorian town of Wycheproof and Melbournefor short, routine consultations.

“We wouldn’t have hesitated getting into the car and goingdown to Melbourne if we felt it was needed but we knew it wasn’t reallynecessary to take that trip just to have a doctor take a quick look and say‘yeah, that’s all going really well’,” she said.

“For rural areas, having this option is such a greatopportunity, especially for our ageing population.”

Dr Ash Collins, who has created a telemedicine service athis practice in the regional NSW town of Temora, said telehealth wasinfiltrating the health scene at such a rate people would soon wonder how theyever managed without it.

He said it had the potential to help ease the medical crisiscrippling small country towns.

“Obviously we don’t want to ignore the importance offace-to-face consultations,” Dr Collins said.

“The reality is many consultations cannot take place viatelemedicine but for others, telemedicine could actually be a superior option,compared to face-to-face.”

“For example, for a 68-year old patient who has had a hipreplacement, a virtual consultation is far better than sitting in a car forhours to go to a 10-minute review visit.”

In September this year, 5384 telehealth claims wereprocessed by Medicare – four times more than in the same month in 2011.

In June this year, the number of claims reached a recordhigh 6393 – or more than 200 a day. Medicare has this year already processed35,995 claims.

Telehealth is most popular in Queensland, followed by NSWand WA.

Dr Collins said higher internet speeds through the NationalBroadband Network would accelerate usage.

“We’re dying for higher bandwidth,” he said.

“Higher quality of video and audio would make theconsultation more comfortable. At the moment, you sometimes encounter problemswith bandwidth and the consultation needs to be abandoned and initiated again.But using the NBN will give us crystal-clear quality video and audio.”

The president of the Royal Australian College of GeneralPractitioners, Dr Liz Marles, said many GPs were still guarded about onlineconsultations. The cost of equipment was one factor.

“(Also) I think with any new technologies and new ways ofdoing things, there are doctors who like to pioneer things and others who liketo wait and see just what extra benefit it brings and how much easier it willmake life. But regardless, I don’t ever really expect telehealth to be a majorpart of general practice.”

Department of Human Services data shows about 2000 GPs,nurse practioners and midwifes now offer telehealth services, along with about500 consultant physicians, 300 specialists and 300 psychiatrists.

Despite its growing popularity, the federal government isslowly winding back the amount of money it offers to help cover the cost ofinstalling telehealth equipment.

The subsidy began at $6000 but will go to $3900 nextfinancial year and be axed entirely in 2014.

From January, telehealth Medicare rebates will be off limitsto residents in capital cities.

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