Rural health workers say high speed broadband is crucial to promote new models of care outside the big cities.Building the National Broadband Network was the top priority recommendation from a recent national rural health conference organised by the National Rural Health Alliance of 13 national bodies, including the Australian Nursing Federation.
The conference called on all political parties to commit to the delivery of high-speed broadband to rural and remote areas, warning that to do otherwise would entrench “the communications divide” between rural and metropolitan Australia.
The alliance says high broadband speeds are crucial for facilitating new and emerging best-practice models of health care, such as those that incorporate high definition videoconferences, data exchange and high-resolution image transfer.
In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry, the Rural Health Alliance said many valuable applications for telehealth and e-health were already technically feasible but only available where there was fibre connection – a key feature of the NBN.
These include real time videoconferencing and the transfer of digital images such as x-rays and CAT scans.
“High-speed broadband will provide the platform for making these proven modalities (as well as those yet to be developed) available everywhere,” the submission stressed.
“A real time interactive videoconference consultation between a remote outpost where there are, for example, several burns patients following a serious accident, must be able to go ahead with the acute burns treatment specialist team at a major urban centre – possibly in another state.
“If the remote outpost is not part of the state public hospital intranet or similar, the connection will rely on the internet. The connection to and from the outpost should sustain a two-way, real-time conversation with good visualisation of the patients and their injuries.”
The submission said the NBN would help rural health providers to use the skills of city-based specialists in areas such as psychiatry and psychology, skin cancer assessments, eye health and in some areas of rehabilitation.
“While some such telehealth interactions may be possible with current connections in some of the better served rural areas, more and more specialist consultations will require improvements in speed and bandwidth.
“The specialist needs a high quality image, not just an idea of the patient’s face. It must be possible to zoom in and visualise a wound or skin rash in sufficient detail to advise on management. More and more, the practitioner with the patient will also need this same quality of image for detailed, interactive advice from the specialist on what can be done locally and at home.”
The alliance pointed out that mental health services were increasingly being provided via the internet and had been found to be effective, particularly for young people.
The NBN will “enable people living in rural and remote areas to have the same access to online mental health support as people in metropolitan areas.”
The submission also warned that health professionals would be reluctant to go to rural and remote areas where there was inadequate broadband access.
“The considerations here include access to professional support, ongoing professional education and e-health technologies, as well as maintaining social links,” it said. “The NBN will enable rural and remote health practitioners to access necessary support, advice and continuing education to improve services and health outcomes for people in the bush.”
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