How does telehealth work in Australia?

Telehealth is used to enhance public healthcare using a variety of telecommunication & technology.

It’s a rapidly growing industry both in Australia and the US and fills an important gap in healthcare treatment, particularly in rural and remote areas where access to specialists and medical facilities is limited.

This guide looks at how telehealth works both here and abroad, the types of technologies employed, the advantages and drawbacks of long-distance healthcare and what the future holds for this burgeoning industry.

What is telehealth?

Telehealth has been a reality in the US for some time now, although in the past, the methods used to deliver such healthcare services were confined to more primitive technologies such as radio, telephone and fax. But with the advent of the Internet, telehealth took a big step forward and the scope of what could be achieved increased dramatically.

In the 1960s, the US government invested heavily in telehealth, recognising its potential to not only treat patients in remote areas, but to help improve the overall health of urban populations as well.

Today we have apps for monitoring and sharing our vital signs, live video conferencing for face-to-face medical diagnosis, medical record storing and sharing in the cloud and a host of other new technologies, with more being developed every day.

With a growing shortage of medical professionals and telehealth tools becoming cheaper all the time, the potential for this kind of healthcare becoming mainstream would seem to be inevitable.

The US now has hundreds of private telehealth companies that provide 24/7 access to remote medical care, specialist diagnoses, and education and collaborative resources for medical professionals.

Which specialists use telehealth?

Telehealth is used successfully in a variety of specialist medical fields including:

  • Telemedicine. Live video conferencing and information sharing between healthcare professionals and patients in remote locations.
  • Teleradiology. Teleradiology allows GPs to send X-rays securely to a radiologist at another location to speed up diagnosis of a patient’s condition.
  • Telepsychiatry. Telepsychiatry lets psychiatrists treat patients remotely, helping to increase public access to behavioural health services.
  • Teledermatology. Teledermatology allows GPs to send pictures of patients’ skin conditions for remote examination by a skin specialist.
  • Teleophthalmology. With teleophthalmology, ophthalmologists can remotely examine a patient’s eyes to diagnose eye problems.
  • Telenephrology. Telenephrology allows a general medical practitioner to consult a nephrologist remotely about a patient with a kidney problem.
  • Teleobstetrics. Teleobstetrics enables an obstetrician to be able to provide remote prenatal care.
  • Teleoncology. With the aid of teleoncology, oncologists can provide more accessible and convenient care to patients with cancer.
  • Telepathology. This technology allows pathologists to share high-resolution images and videos for diagnosis, research and education.
  • Telerehabilitation. Allows medical professionals to provide rehab services remotely (i.e. physical therapy).

How can you access these services?

Types of delivery systems for the various telehealth applications include:

  • Networked programs. Remote health clinics are linked to larger facilities such as hospitals via high-speed Internet connections.
  • Monitoring centre links. Patients are monitored remotely at home via the Internet, SMS or phone connections.
  • Store-and-forward platforms. Internet portals where healthcare providers can forward, store and share patient data securely.
  • Health tracking tools. Wearables, apps and other mobile medical devices for tracking and reporting personal medical data.
  • Real-time video links. Allow health professionals to interact with remote patients and make diagnoses based on visual information.

Telehealth pros and cons

As a form of healthcare delivery, telehealth has both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, telehealth:

  • Improves access to medical treatment for those in remote areas
  • Makes healthcare more convenient for patients in general
  • Reduces the burden on overworked health professionals
  • Saves on healthcare costs
  • Increases access to specialists
  • Increases patient engagement with their own healthcare

Conversely, critics of telehealth point to potential disadvantages such as:

  • Initial cost of equipment and training
  • Impersonal treatment by company-appointed healthcare professionals
  • Potential for inaccurate diagnosis when not face-to-face

However, it could be argued that telehealth is not designed to replace traditional medicine, but to assist it wherever possible by taking over the burden of routine practices and procedures and freeing up medical professionals to provide a higher quality of face-to-face service.

Telemedicine in Australia

While telehealth has been around in the US for some time, it is only a relatively new concept in Australia. It could be argued that outback radio has been providing a form of telehealth service for remote areas in Australia for many years, but with the coming of satellites and the Internet, telehealth services are now becoming much more sophisticated.

Video-conferencing is one form of telehealth that has expanded significantly and such services are being utilised more and more by local GPs in remote parts of the country. Medicare-funded telehealth services are also being made available to residents of eligible aged care homes and to Aboriginal medical services across Australia.

TeleMedicine Australia (TMA) is the first supplier of telehealth technology at primary care and aged care levels in Australia, providing peripherals, encounter management software and telemedicine solutions for home care. It provides peripherals for recording medical information of almost every kind, 24/7 monitoring of vital signs in patients’ homes, residential aged care facilities and hospitals and video conferencing facilities to put patients in touch with practitioners whenever needed.

Does health insurance cover telehealth?

Some health insurers are also offering telehealth services to their members, including:

  • Bupa. Bupa offers telephonic health support for members with chronic conditions such as heart failure, heart disease, diabetes, back pain and lung conditions.
  • Medibank Health Solutions. Medibank Health Solutions provides telephone and web-based health care services including telephone triage, health advice and referral, health coaching, mental health programs, chronic disease management and health call centre software.
  • HCF. HCF has taken a 15% stake in telehealth start-up GP2U, which provides a remote medical consultation and prescription service in conjunction with Priceline and Terry White Chemists.

What does the future hold for telehealth services?

With rapid advances in technology, telehealth is sure to become easier and much more widely accepted in the future. We already have Google Glass and the Apple Watch that can monitor our health data and transmit it to health professionals. And with pioneering new work being carried out in areas such as robotic surgery, facial recognition and automatic data transcription, there’s no reason why telehealth tools won’t be an integral part of our future healthcare systems worldwide. Indeed, telehealth is predicted to become a $40 billion industry in just the next few years, so the future looks bright for healthcare professionals and patients alike.

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