Telehealth services go west to the Darling Downs

The University of Queensland's Centre for Online Health (COH) has received funding from natural gas company QGC to develop and implement whole-of-community telehealth services in several towns in the Darling Downs region of southern Queensland.

Three nursing homes in the region will have access to telehealth services, as will the public hospitals in Toowoomba and Dalby. The project will also investigate mechanisms which support the delivery of telehealth services into general practice.

Associate Professor Anthony Smith, deputy director of the COH, said QGC initially provided funding for a scoping study in 2012 that will now be implemented in Dalby, Chinchilla and Miles in the Western Downs region. The service models will be designed to be sustainable.

While paediatrics, geriatrics and general medical specialist support were all in particular demand, Dr Smith said the plan was to establish the infrastructure and new processes that would potentially result in the delivery of a broad range of telehealth services where and as they are required.

“We are concentrating on a range of specialties for patients of all ages, and ensuring that any new telehealth services are introduced as a response to the health needs of patients in these communities,” Dr Smith said.

“An important aspect of introducing telehealth services is ensuring that we have the right mechanisms in place to facilitate consultations at a distance, and that the appropriate support is made available to the clinicians involved in the service.

“Our aim is to build a whole-of-community telehealth service which will help deliver specialist services into selected hospitals, general practice medical centres and nursing homes.”

Part of the $1.3 million from QGC – which has set up a $150 million social impact management plan from its Curtis LNG project – will be used to build a dedicated telehealth room at Dalby Hospital, based on similar configurations established by the COH at the Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) and the Princess Alexandra Hospital (PAH) in Brisbane.

To support patients in residential aged care facilities, the Centre will also be instituting the high-tech approach developed by Dr Smith and Professor Len Gray, director of the COH, which involves bringing high-resolution video conferencing technology to the resident's bedside.

“Three nursing homes will have access to our RES-e-CARE service,” he said. “That will allow us to provide specialist geriatric services and potentially a range of other specialities including dermatology, endocrinology and psychiatry into these facilities.”

Dr Smith said that the underlying goal of the project is to ensure that any telehealth services are sustainable.

“Our research will investigate a range of factors including technical feasibility and cost-effectiveness,” he said. “The funding provided by QGC will act as an important driver to encourage the development of new services which deliver benefits for patients living in these towns.

“We have an excellent opportunity to help advance the use of telemedicine in general practice. Whilst there are some commercially operated telemedicine services on the market, we are interested in exploring ways in which GPs can be more engaged with services available through Queensland Health.”

Queensland Health has an extensive network of Cisco Tandberg video conference systems, situated in all hospitals and most health centres throughout the state.

“We will be working with Queensland Health with the intention of expanding telehealth services and this will require a range of operational and logistical processes to be put into place," Dr Smith said. "The mechanisms for referring a patient, scheduling a consultation, managing clinical information and records, sharing correspondence and funding specific services all needs to be carefully managed.”

Dr Smith said the advantage of working with several towns in the Western Downs is that they all are unique in terms of their demographics and service requirements.

“Dalby has a population of about 15,000, Chinchilla about 5500 and Miles has around 2000. This gives us the opportunity to explore a range of telehealth service models in towns of varying sizes.

“It is interesting when you are dealing with towns with different populations; there also may be a slightly different approach to doing telehealth.

“There tends to be a large proportion of the population who are over 65 years of age or under 14. Although there is a paediatric population that needs to be supported, it is principally an older population where adult and geriatric services will also be very important.

“We anticipate that a range of services may be appropriately delivered from the hospital in Toowoomba; the telepaediatric service at the RCH; and the PA Online telehealth centre at the PAH in Brisbane.”

Depending on the types of services being offered in the region, the COH expects to use a range of techniques including video conferencing and web-based clinical support, he said.

"Some approaches may be better suited to lower cost communication methods such as email, as is the case with dermatology and wound care where valuable advice may be provided by a specialist with access to a good quality digital photograph and relevant case history.

“During the next two years, we will learn valuable lessons in regards to the configuration of telehealth services in a range of different settings. Beyond the life of the project, we expect that these new services will have a lasting benefit for people living in these communities and also that the models developed could be used in other rural and remote communities throughout the country.”

Posted in Aged Care

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