Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has used the Labor Party’s official campaign launch to link the future health of Australians with the National Broadband Network (NBN).
Speaking in Queensland, Gillard said the Government would use the speed and connectivity of the NBN to facilitate online consultations between patients and doctors via videoconferencing.
The $392.3 million initiative would see Medicare rebates issued from 1 July 2012 for some 495,000 online consultation services over four years to rural, remote and outer metropolitan areas.
The scheme would also include financial incentives for general practitioners and specialists to participate in delivering online services in tandem with an expansion of Labor’s GP after-hours helpline.
The new service would provide a link between a nurse or GP and the patient allowing online triage and basic medical advice to be delivered via videoconferencing.
A fund to support the training and supervision of health professionals on how to use online technologies would also be set up.
According to Gillard the NBN would be essential in curbing the rates of cancer-related deaths in regional and rural Australia.
“It is unacceptable to me, it is offensive to me, that if you live in rural and regional Australia you are three times more like to die within five years if you are diagnosed with cancer, than other Australians,” she said.
“That is because it is harder for people in regional and rural Australia to get access to the services, to the healthcare professionals they need. I want to transform that relying on the National Broadband Network.”
Patients would also be able to access specialist healthcare staff via dedicated videoconferencing units at their local GP’s office or medical centre, rather than commuting to the specialists’ offices.
According to the Government, more widespread utilisation of tele-health services outside of hospitals had been held back by lack of infrastructure, poor bandwidth and lack of Medicare rebates for consultations delivered online.
However, opposition leader, Tony Abbott, told media immediately following the announcement that many of the services already existed.
"We already have various health call centres, we already have under the existing Medicare system we have remote consultations," he said.
"I'm very happy to see increased use of technology in the delivery of health services. When I was the health minister that's precisely what we did, but I simply make the point that we are much more likely to get affordable, deliverable broadband from a competitive market than we are from a government monopoly."
Gillard's announcement also provides a timely, raison d'être for the NBN – jobs, education, and health – something, along with a business case, has been lacking to date.
“We understand that this technology is about transforming our economy so that we have a fair share of the jobs of the future, our classrooms so it doesn’t matter whether you are in Brisbane, or Alice Springs or Perth, you can open the door to the world and see it from your classroom,” Gillard said. “But we also understand that this technology is about transforming how we deliver healthcare.
“This can’t happen if we don’t have the broadband. Can’t happen if we don’t happen if we don’t have the after hours hotline. Can’t happen if Mr Abbott is elected Prime Minister because he is going to stop both.”