Telehealth will be a key element in the future of health service delivery and has the potential to generate millions of dollars in savings, speakers at the CeBIT eHealth Conference told delegates on 2 June 2011.
Implementation of telehealth in Queensland was a particular focus of discussion, with Dr. Anthony Smith, Deputy Director and Associate Professor, Centre for Online Health at the University of Queensland and Mr. Ray Brown, CIO of Queensland Health sharing their experiences with the technology in the service delivery realm.
Both speakers emphasised the numerous benefits of telehealth, including addressing issues associated with a widely distributed population, such as large distances, travel times, costs and inconvenience for patients and their families. Telehealth can also be more convenient and cost effective for health professionals, who can arrange telehealth consultations rather than physically transferring a patient.
In his address, ‘Emerging Health Applications and Mobile Delivery’, Dr. Smith suggested that telehealth has the potential to generate $45 million per year in savings for Queensland Health by removing the need for the government-funded subsidy for patients who have to travel long distances for medical care.
Dr. Smith emphasised the increased role of this technology in modern health service delivery, with current developments such as the NBN enabling the widespread deployment of telehealth. With this in mind, developments over the next three to six years will focus on achieving a more web-based approach and increasing interoperability and integration. Change management processes will also be implemented to assist health professionals and stakeholders adapt to the new model.
Dr. Smith referred to telepaediatrics as a case study, which has over the last few years broadened from videoconferencing to web-based applications. The program covers 37 sub-speciality areas referred through an 1800-number and now extends to 97 sites across Queensland. 11,250 consultations have been completed via this service to date, with 17% of all burns outpatients now managed by telehealth.
Telepaedriatric ‘robots’ – mobile videoconferencing systems – were also introduced in 2005, allowing specialists to consult with patients from their beds.
Similarly, Queensland Health CIO Mr. Brown told delegates that one of the Department’s primary initiatives has been the establishment of a videoconferencing network across the state, which became the basis for the telehealth environment. By implementing 962 telehealth end-points, Queensland Health has provided a mechanism for innovative service delivery, allowing patients in remote areas access to specialist health professionals.
The benefits of greater investment in telehealth are also being recognised at Federal level, with Dr. Mukesh Haikerwal, National Clinical Lead at the National eHealth Transition Authority (NEHTA) referring to the Medicare rebates for video consultations available from 1 July 2011.
Telehealth has the potential as a catalyst for change in technical, regulatory, financial, practice management and clinical spheres, Dr. Mukesh said. It is also efficient and sustainable, and increases the equity of healthcare by ensuring that all Australians have access to timely and accurate clinical information.
The focus on telehealth at CeBIT’s eHealth forum follows Minister for Broadband, Communities and the Digital Economy Stephen Conroy’s announcement of over $72 million of projects as part of the National Digital Education Strategy on the opening session of the CeBIT Conference. The Strategy includes a $3.5 million allocation for an in-house trial of a telehealth capability, which will involve diabetes patients in the Townsville region.
Telehealth was also a key element of the recently-elected NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell’s election platform, pledging $2 million to build a telehealth centre in Penrith, NSW.