Monday, November 17th, 2014 - Australasian Telehealth Society

Adelaide conference showcases innovations in telehealth; now let’s get these into practice.

Delegates are gathering in Adelaide today for SFT-14, the "Successes and Failures in Telehealth" conference, and the 5th Annual Meeting of the Australasian Telehealth Society, which will be opened by the SA Minister for Health, the Hon Jack Snelling M.P.

Telehealth is the delivery of health care services at a distance, using information and communication technology. This conference will showcase the achievements of doctors, nurses, psychologists and all healthcare providers in using telehealth to bringing healthcare to rural and remote areas and into people’s homes, to achieve better access to healthcare and improved health outcomes.

What is more, telehealth improves communication, saves money, reduces travel, and improves the efficiency of health care service delivery. Telehealth provides a valuable lifeline to health services that already operate in remote areas, backing them up in emergencies and helping provide more services closer to home.

In 2011, the Australian Government put video consultations by specialists to rural Australia on Medicare. This means that people in the bush can see a specialist by simply going to their local general practice, rather than having to travel to the city. This initiative has supported around 230,000 telehealth consultations since then, but more than twice this number was predicted, so the funding set aside has been underspent, and this gives capacity to expend telehealth to a broader range of health services.

Telehealth is still only available in some areas and needs to be put into practice much more widely to make health outcomes more equal. More than 30% of Australians live in rural and remote areas, but less than 1% of medical specialist consultations are by telehealth. Improvements in broadband communication need to be harnessed to bring more health services to these areas. In far west NSW, remote WA and in the NT life expectancy is more than 10 years below average, and suicide rates are more than double, and telehealth can help fix this inequality.

The Australasian Telehealth Society, representing doctors, nurses, allied health providers, health administrators and researchers in telehealth, calls for the following list of reforms to be implemented:

Firstly, there needs to be increases to the range of telehealth services on the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS). In particular:

GPs should be able to initiate video consultations to patients in aged care facilities and to remote areas where there are no resident GPs.
Allied health professionals such as psychologists, dieticians, speech pathologists and others should be able to deliver care by telehealth to underserved areas.

Also, telehealth is about more than video consultations. A great deal can be done in eye care and skin care using clinical photography and sending images for specialist evaluation, and there should be Medicare funding for this type of telehealth as well.

Finally, the Independent Hospital Pricing Authority, an organisation supported by the State/Territory and Federal governments, should start recording telehealth activities in hospitals and funding them appropriately. Despite all the benefits that telehealth can offer, it is really hard to grow and develop telehealth inside the major public hospitals when it is not counted and not funded.

Dr Victoria (Tori) Wade – Vice-President of the Australasian Telehealth Society concludes by saying:

“It is time for the Australian Government to step up to the plate and expand Medicare for telehealth. Over the past three years, many specialists have consulted with patients in rural areas by video communication, and some excellent work has been done, from cancer care, to psychiatry, to cardiology, and some really good outcomes produced, but telehealth is still a special case, and it needs to become part of the daily operations of healthcare everywhere.

"A lot of health care is still stuck in last century’s processes and systems. Most of the time, there is no reason why patients should have to sit in a waiting room for three hours, or travel a day each way to see a specialist. When telehealth is implemented widely, then we will really be getting a health care system for the 21st Century.” 

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Victoria Wade

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