Health District Chief signals greater focus on telehealth usage in future

Checking in with your specialist could be as simple as switching on a computer monitor soon.

GPs and other health specialists in the region are set to start conducting follow-up consultations with patients remotely, as part of the Western Local Health District's plan to localise health services and to decrease patients' need to travel over the next three years.

"We know that the impact on patients and their families is really significant when they have to travel away from their home town," Western Local Health District Chief Executive Scott McLachlan said.

"We talked with local GPs about the opportunities of telehealth technology to bring in specialists to their practise via videoconference and all of the evidence around the world says that rural patients actually prefer telehealth, as opposed to having to travel for a service."

Telehealth, or remote patient monitoring, will be used by health professionals in regional centres like Orange, Bathurst and Dubbo to follow-up with patients after initial consults, and to reduce travelling times for both patients and staff.

"We know that for some specialities, there's a real need for the patient and the doctor to sit in the same room, particularly where they need to lay a hand on a patient, or do some tests or listen to heart rates to diagnose the condition; but a lot of the time the follow-up consultation is more of a conversation to see how the patient is going, if their medication is still working, or if there are any other complications. This and a lot of the follow-up conversations can happen via telehealth," Mr McLachlan said.

Elements of telehealth are already in use in Cowra and have been for some time, but Mr McLachlan said that there's a "lot of opportunity" to expand the services within the region.

"Cowra's already got some good videoconferencing equipment in the Emergency Department and in other rooms within the health service that allows intensivists from one of our intensive care units to provide a lot of support to patients when they are critically ill in Cowra or Grenfell or other small towns," Mr McLachlan said.

"In the out-patient clinic, there's also lot of opportunity for patients to save the need to travel through to Orange for a consult with cardiologists, respiratory specialists or diabetes specialists that can be done by telehealth."

Remote patient monitoring is the foundation of health district's overarching strategy to work smarter, that will see some services condensed and others expanded in order to improve patient experience.

According to Mr McLachlan, current Medicare incentives for telehealth will see GPs and specialists paid 50 per cent more for seeing patients remotely until June 2014. Medicare Local is set to foot some of the bill to upgrade equipment in general practices across the region.

There must be 15-kilometre distance by road between a patient and a specialist at the time of a video consult however the minimum distance requirement doesn't apply to residents living in aged care facilities or patients of an Aboriginal Medical Service.

Mr McLachlan said that the move to telehealth will help bring the district in line with the way other health services are run around the world.

"We think that telehealth is just a better or smarter way of staff working. There's a lot of low-cost equipment that is really high quality these days; all it means is switching on a video camera that can sit on their desk that can connect them to the patient wherever they are," Mr McLachlan said.

"There's a whole range of new technologies available that mean that specialists can provide advice without patients being in a big acute hospital."

Western Local Health District Cheff Executive Scott McLachlan launches the district's new strategic health plan with Dr Robin Williams.

Western Local Health District Cheff Executive Scott McLachlan launches the district's new strategic health plan with Dr Robin Williams.