A number of Australia’s leading health associations have welcomed the news that a re-elected Labor Government would use the speed and connectivity of the National Broadband Network (NBN) to facilitate online consultations between patients and doctors via videoconferencing.
According to Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) federal secretary, Lee Thomas, the association supported an increase in healthcare access for those living in rural and remote areas, but was waiting for more detail on the role of nurses, midwives and nurse practitioners in the scheme.
"Nurses already play a very big role in delivering healthcare to non-metro patients," Thomas said. "That care, in many cases, could be easily be provided through an online consultation and that would mean more Australians could access nursing and midwifery expertise.
"Nurses strongly support technologies that assist with seamless diagnosis and treatment, e-Health is one of those technologies and must form the future foundations of healthcare in Australia."
In a statement Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA) immediate past-President, Dr Peter Rischbieth, welcomed the policy and said the organisation had lobbied for tele-health as a means of improving access to healthcare in the bush for many years.
“While this technology should never be seen as a replacement for local doctors and other health professionals in country communities, it does provide a very useful additional tool in enabling diagnosis and follow-up for a range of conditions, saving patients the time and cost of travelling what can be thousands of kilometres to see a specialist in person,” he said.
“Consequently, it is great to see the Gillard Government announcing measures that will support the further rollout of tele-health technology for rural and remote Australians, and particularly its decision to widen the Medicare rebates for tele-health consults to ensure the time and skills of doctors at both ends of the consult are recognised.”
In a statement the Australian Medical Association (AMA) president, Dr Andrew Pesce, said the policy was a recognition of the need to embrace communications technology to modernise Australia’s health system.
“It will allow doctors to overcome the tyranny of distance when providing care and advice for patients in rural and remote Australia,” Pesce said. “Some patients will no longer have to travel long hours and incur significant costs to access medical care.”
Pesce said ongoing support for telemedicine services, through Medicare patient rebates and support for IT infrastructure and training, would ensure that local doctors could obtain specialist input for the ongoing care and management of their patients.
“The capacity to download test results and high quality diagnostic images quickly will enhance the care that local doctors can provide via telemedicine networks, including the use of high quality video for doctor-patient consultations and videoconferencing,” he said.
“As the take-up and reach of telemedicine technology and services grow, so too must the investment to ensure that the telemedicine networks stay modern and new technologies are introduced as they become available.”
However both the RDAA and AMA addded caveats to their support for the policy.
The AMA’s Pesce said that for the policy to work, close consultation with the AMA and the medical profession, especially rural doctors, to ensure that these initiatives provide the maximum benefit to patients and communities would be required.
In addition, further commitment to attracting and retaining doctors in rural and remote communities to complement these important measures was needed.
ANF's Thomas said while the organisation welcomed any discussion about closing the healthcare assess gap between metro and non metro areas, all Australians should have equal access to health care no matter where they lived.
"Online consultation by nursing and midwifery professionals could potently bring care to those cut off by proximity but more detail is needed of how the scheme will work,” Thomas said.
The RDAA’s Rischbieth added that further action was needed to improve rural and regional healthcare, such as a ‘National Rural Health Obligation’ to set the standards of access that rural Australians should expect when it comes to local health services.
An improved training regime for rural doctors, a ‘Rural Rescue Package’ comprising Medicare fee for service incentives to compensate those doctors who support rural communities, and a suite of supports for rural health services was also recommended.