NBN 101: How the NBN can change Australian healthcare

The National Broadband Network has the potential to make widespread e-health deployment a reality

Back when he was a far more popular figure among the ALP hierarchy, Kevin Rudd led Labor to victory with the grand promise of a nationwide high-speed broadband network that would provide ubiquitous access for all Australians.

The $43 billion National Broadband Network (NBN) has the potential to enable a host of new and innovative applications and radically change a number of Australian industries.

[This article is part of Computerworld Australia's NBN 101 series, in which we take a look at aspects of Australia's fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network. The articles are meant to be an overview of the debates surrounding the National Broadband Network (NBN). For in-depth NBN coverage, head to our NBN tracker.]

In the realm of education, it could revolutionise how Australians teach and learn. The effect it stands to have on Australian healthcare is no less dramatic. Although a network on the scale of the NBN is not necessarily a technical precursor to the rollout of many e-health technologies, with its bandwidth and the scale of its deployment it can act as an enabler that eliminates some of the constraints on the implementation of unique healthcare identifiers and personally controlled electronic health records, for example, and enhance access to telehealth and videoconferencing.

Further reading on e-health: Snapshot: The e-health landscape in Australia

Where are we now?

It’s common knowledge that residents in metropolitan areas have a significant advantage over their country cousins in rural Australia when it comes to broadband services. And when it comes to healthcare services the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) e-health spokesperson and former clinical lead at the National E-Health Transition Authority (NEHTA), Dr Nathan Pinskier, says the current environment is hampering the capacity of healthcare providers to provide services as the infrastructure to deliver such services is not up to scratch.

“They’re two interrelated issues; the foundations for e-health are not necessarily broadband-dependent but the mass adoption of e-health is. So we need to be able to build the foundations, deploy them across the health sector and then have the capacity to be able to use those foundation components as part of the messaging processes and other communication requirements.”

According to Deloitte consultant and e-health expert, Craig Smith, the ongoing issues for broadband when it comes to e-health are availability, reliability and coverage.

“Unless we can actually improve reliability for all connected points, we will have challenges in people taking up any kind of healthcare delivered over that infrastructure,” he says.

“Without broadband or the NBN, the key impediments that exist today when we’re trying to deliver e-health would still run rife,” he adds. “Obviously within the health environment on of the key challenges is access to the information, but reliable access to the information is most important.”

Grampians Health Alliance chief information officer, David Ryan, agrees, noting that the uptake of e-health is patchy in rural and regional areas due a lack of connectivity between health services. Specifically he points out the poor take-up of telehealth services in these regions as the communities struggle to attract and retain staff.

“The service of metropolitan specialists travelling into remote regions is becoming more and more difficult for them. So ultimately if you can provide that on a remote basis — as an online consultation service or a telehealth videoconferencing service — that means it’s seen as a way for those services to continue.”

“There have been quite a significant number of failures across Australia in telehealth before and it’s fair to say the reasons for those failures have been sustainability both in terms of funding and sustainability in terms of how the technology companies have contributed to their own downfall,” he says.

“They have basically sold solutions at very low prices, 'get-in prices' and then failed to sustain those prices when the project is completed. Sustainability must be embedded both in terms of ongoing funding but also embedded in the practice of healthcare.”

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