GP launches free Skype teleconferencing network

Melbourne GP Jonathan Brown has set up a new website allowing GPs and specialists to conduct teleconferences through Skype.

The Consult Online site is completely free, includes easy steps to show practitioners how to download Skype and then register for ConsultOnline, and includes a list of the Medicare item numbers they need to claim a consult under the MBS.

And Dr Brown did it all this past weekend. An admitted geek, Dr Brown said he was frustrated in his own practice that few specialists seemed to know how to use teleconferencing.

“I had a patient with a broken nose and I wanted to find a specialist who could have a look at it over Skype and have a chat with the patient,” he said. ““I rang around a few ENT doctors asking if someone could have a look at the patient via teleconsult but there was no way of finding a specialist that could offer this service.

“Over the weekend I built a directory of specialists and GPs that offer teleconsulting with a phone number for the GP to call to arrange a consult. You can see when the specialist is online and call them for the teleconsult.”

The home page lists seven easy steps to using the service, and also allows users to search for specialists in a directory. It shows who is currently online on Skype but also the user's telephone number to ring to set an appointment for a consult.

“It shows you who is online but it's not really to call somebody there and then,” he said. “It has the phone number and says call this number to set up a time for a consult. You can see if they are online at the agreed time.”

He acknowledges that there is debate over the use of Skype for teleconferencing due to its lack of privacy settings and resolution, but does not believe that practitioners need to purchase proprietary software for teleconferencing. “You don't need it,” he said. “Consult works and is free. We performed a teleconsult today and the system works well. I think it's great that a rural doctor can ring a specialist quickly and easily and perhaps avoid the need for patients to travel long distances to see specialists.”

His opinion echoes that of Gundagai GP Paul Mara, who said he has chosen to use Skype rather than other proprietary packages on the market.

“We have investigated a range of solutions and are currently using Skype,” Dr Mara said. “At this stage it is the simplest and to be quite honest the most effective solution that we’ve used. We had a look at a few other teleconferencing solutions and they were either too expensive or promise the earth but are not much better than Skype for the type of consultation we’re undertaking at present.”

Dr Mara dismisses the arguments of many telehealth solution vendors that Skye is not high enough quality, or secure enough.

“The notion that you could log accidentally onto any car detailer or housewife or school kid and start having a video medical consultation is a bit rich. It would be nice to have total security and confidentiality and encryption happening, but as soon as you start putting in encryption algorithms, with the speed of the internet at the moment the whole thing would become untenable.”

Dr Brown has signed up with the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine's telehealth service, another free site that allows practitioners to add their names to a registry of active telehealth providers, and has also added a Facebook Like and sharing function to the website.

For more on the debate over Skype for telehealth, see the July 2 issue of Pulse+IT magazine.

Posted in Australian eHealth

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