Telehealth to boost regional treatment options: CSIRO

Patients in remote parts of Australia will have access to diagnostic and treatment options closer to those in major urban centres, a new report predicts

Telehealth consultations will become far more common for people in regional Australia and help reduce the gap in health outcomes between people in Indigenous communities and the rest of Australia, a new CSIRO report predicts.

"Eventually, digitally-enabled remote health clinics, connected via superfast broadband, will provide for the most part, equivalent comprehensive diagnostic and treatment options to remote communities as experienced in major cities," the report, A Digitally-enabled Health System, states.

"Specialists and clinicians will assist remote health workers in treatment using increasingly intuitive telepresence robots, and unobtrusive wearable computer systems, allowing each clinic to meet the majority of health needs of their communities without putting pressure on relatively low numbers of staff."

The CSIRO is studying how wearable technologies can help health workers receive direct guidance from specialists as well as the use of video streaming and haptic feedback for training.

"We are seeing telehealth, wearable devices and telepresence technologies playing a bigger role in managing chronic disease at home, automated disease diagnosis and remote training and guidance for rural health workers," said CSIRO Health Services research leader, Dr Sarah Dods.

A group of health industry stakeholders called 'One In Four Lives' — which includes BT, the University of Western Sydney, the Australian Information Industry Association, Anywhere Healthcare and Philips — believes that telehealth could cut public hospital costs by about $4 billion a year by reducing avoidable hospital presentations.

To promote use of the technology, a whitepaper issued by One In Four Lives earlier this month advocated the creation of a national telehealth strategy.

"Health systems worldwide face sustainability pressures and challenges, leading to widespread reform agendas including the adoption of new models of care and enabling technologies," the white paper states.

"In many countries this has led to the creation of substantial eHealth strategic plans and implementation policies, which in some cases have included Telehealth. Australia’s eHealth plan has notably omitted this area, and despite the introduction of the Medicare Benefits Scheme (MBS) video consultation items and a considerable number of localised independent clinical and commercial activities in Telehealth, there has been no clear government direction on how the Telehealth landscape should unfold."

Beyond telehealth, the CSIRO report looks at a range of digital and data-based measures that can improve patient outcomes and make health systems more efficient.

"We need to look at new ways to make the health system work smarter. Digital technologies promise that," Dods said.

"Medical technology for diagnostics and treatment has improved in leaps and bounds, but many health services are still stuck on paper," Dods said.

"People expect the health system to keep up and we’re seeing some exciting emerging technologies that will make a big difference over coming years.

"For example hospitals are the single costliest element in Australia’s health system, taking up to 40 per cent of health expenditure, and they are complex to run. But once its information moves off paper, a hospital’s complexity can be easily managed by digital technology."

Read more: Research, collaboration drives AARNet unified communications deal

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