Royal Flying Doctor Service backs e-health

RFDS says devil is in the details but supports Federal Government’s decision

The Royal Flying Doctors Service (RFDS) has come out in support of the Federal Government’s $466.7 million commitment to personally controlled electronic health records.

RFDS chief executive officer, Nigel Milan, said that, while the initial burst of publicity in the Budget was around the metropolitan issue of hospital beds, the famed healthcare provider was pleased that there is more money for primary healthcare.

“We were further encouraged by… the government’s announcement on an individual health record for every Australian,” he told Computerworld Australia ahead of speaking at the CeBit conference next week.

“Again these are very positive announcements. The general point is we think the overall thrust of policy is actually moving in the right direction. The devil of course is in the detail and how to turn that policy into action on the ground. I guess an issue for us is we see ourselves very much as a ‘can-do’ organisation; we are right in the midst of delivery of primary healthcare services to very remote parts of Australia where there is no other provider in some cases or in many cases.

“The question we have to ask ourselves, and I am indeed as much looking for answers and asking questions, in how technology can enable to do that. What sort of technologies are really going to help us deliver the patient outcomes for rural and particularly remote Australians.”

One of the potential tools the RFDS has trialled is video conferencing but, unlike metro-based hospitals and healthcare providers, using video in remote locales isn’t always the best option.

“Everyone has thought that video conferencing would be of use to the Flying Doctor’s service,” RFDS national health program manager, Robert Williams said. “But in our few attempts to do it – we tried it early when it was first introduced in the 90s and more recently – it has actually been difficult to demonstrate that it can value-add to the doctor.

“The telephone is incredibly mobile; doctors can answer calls when they are travelling, when they are at home, when they are in the aircraft or wherever. Where as video conferencing tends to be fixed to one point. There have only been rare occasions when the visual has value added to the telephone and I don’t think it has got to that point.”

Unless video conferencing can catch up with the mobile phone, the RFDS is unlikely to adopt it further. However, the organisation is also considering greater online engagement and the use of web 2.0 tools.

“That is another way now to communicate with people about their health and improving access to information, increasing self-literacy and increasing self-management of illness,” Milan said.

The RFDS has recently consolidated its websites from five down to one, but it is still primarily an information tool, and doesn't offer the engagement the healthcare service is aiming to use technology for.

“We are just at the stage where we are engaging some people to help us look at developing that,” Milan said.

In February last year, the RFDS said it was deploying what may be the first national e-health records management system to unify disparate medical databases across its four regional sites.

The $2.9 million government-funded e-health records system will replace siloed databases and manual processes throughout the organisation.

The RFDS was established in 1928 as the Area Medical Service and provides non-profit aero-medical and primary healthcare to regional and remote Australia. It consists of four independent divisions, with 25 sites and 776 staff, and services all but the upper region of the Northern Territory.

Yesterday, the Opposition confirmed they would cut the Federal Government’s $466.7 million e-health funding.

Milan will be talking at next week’s CeBit conference in Sydney. Computerworld Australia will be bringing you all the news direct from the event so stay tuned.