Australasian telehealth celebrates its coming of age

This article first appeared in the October 2012 edition of Pulse+IT Magazine.

The injection of funds into local telehealth provision through the MBS telehealth item numbers and the NBN-enabled telehealth pilots program means the more widespread adoption of telehealth in Australia is beginning to take shape. The potential of these initiatives, and the strategic directions for telehealth over the next few years, will be discussed at the Global Telehealth 2012 conference in Sydney in November.

Although telehealth has been part of Australian healthcare since the foundation of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the last few years have seen an explosion of activity and a fundamental change in the way telehealth is viewed within the health system. The primary catalyst for change has been the Australian government’s introduction of telehealth items into the Medicare Benefits Schedule in mid-2011.

A number of other measures introduced since then have supported the use of telehealth; for example, in recent months several multi-million dollar projects have been announced under the Digital Regions Initiative of the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. The communications infrastructure supporting future telehealth initiatives is likely to receive a major boost over the next few years as the National Broadband Network is rolled out, and the NBN-enabled telehealth pilots program is already funding a number of pilot projects.

The promise of universal coverage should accelerate the implementation of services to the most remote communities, as well as facilitating the provision of health services directly to the home. Internationally, the most rapid area of growth in telehealth is the provision of health services via mobile device, with predictions of huge growth in this sector.

Despite these advances, there are immense challenges for telehealth in Australia. Growth brings its own problems, and there is a growing perception that telehealth can fulfil its promise only with high-level goal-setting and a national perspective. Already, federal intervention is creating an environment for such a view, but there is a need for national policy and direction-setting, with the Commonwealth acting as more than just a funding body. The need for nationally agreed standards is one of many issues facing the rapidly growing telehealth community.

There are high expectations for telehealth. For example, there are hopes that telehealth can assist providers and services in meeting the health needs of an ageing population. In-home care places a relatively small burden on health systems, and technological advances are making it easier to provide such services to the home. An ongoing challenge to Australia’s health systems is addressing the relatively poor health outcomes for our indigenous population; providers in several states and the Northern Territory are increasingly looking to telehealth to meet the needs of these communities.

Formation of ATHS

A number of national bodies have provided forums for the telehealth community to work through these issues. Medical colleges such as the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners have become active in telehealth, while the Health Informatics Society of Australia has mounted two national telehealth events. The Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine is acting as a coordinating and educational body as well as providing a forum for those involved.

Since 2008, these relatively long-established bodies were joined by the Australasian Telehealth Society (ATHS), the only organisation constituted to address the needs of the telehealth community in Australia and New Zealand. Since that time, ATHS has ridden the wave of telehealth growth, and now has approximately 200 members.

One of the most significant activities of ATHS has been to organise Australia’s only fully peer-reviewed Australian telehealth conference (the highly successful and long-running Successes and Failures in Telehealth conference, organised by the Centre for Online Health, is now merged with the ATHS conference when it is held).

The first ATHS conference in 2010 was also the 15th International Conference of the International Society for Telemedicine and eHealth (ISfTeH), for which ATHS is the national member for Australia and New Zealand. That meeting adopted the title ‘Global Telehealth 2010’ (GT2010).

The second ATHS conference in 2011 was combined with the Successes and Failures in Telehealth conference, but in 2012 ATHS will present its second global telehealth conference, Global Telehealth 2012. This will be held in Sydney from November 26 to 28 at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel.

Global telehealth forum

Several themes will be explored at this meeting. The major sponsor of the conference is the federal Department of Health and Ageing, and the conference is ideally placed in time to assess the success of DoHA’s many telehealth initiatives, as well as to look at strategic directions for telehealth over the next few years.

Two of the invited overseas speakers will highlight some of telehealth challenges likely over the next few years. Telehealth support in the home will be addressed by Sabine Koch, professor of health informatics and director of the Health Informatics Centre Sweden (HIC). Professor Koch has a background in medical informatics with a PhD from the University of Heidelberg. Her research interests comprise home telehealth, human-computer interaction in health and social care, and consumer informatics.

Her current research focus is on integration architectures for shared care environments as well as on visualisation and interaction techniques for context-based presentation of clinical information. Professor Koch is a well-known researcher in the international scientific medical informatics community and is an editorial board member of several international scientific journals in the field.

Telehealth to indigenous populations represents a challenge and opportunity, and GT2012 will be pleased to welcome A. Stewart Ferguson, CIO for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Organization in Anchorage, Alaska. Approximately 15 per cent of the Alaskan population is indigenous, and many of the issues of overcoming distance and communications deficiencies will be familiar to Australians.

Dr Ferguson’s eminence in his field is testified by the fact that he has been elected president for 2012-13 of the American Telemedicine Association. Prior to becoming CIO, Dr Ferguson was director of the Alaska Federal Health Care Access Network (AFHCAN). AFHCAN is Alaska’s largest telehealth project with deployments at 248 remote sites, and has been recognised with the President’s Award from the American Telemedicine Association, a TETHIC Award for Most Innovative New Technology Device for Diagnostics for 2004, the National Managed Health Care Congress AstraZeneca Award and the Grace Hopper Government Technology Leadership Award.

Invited Australian and New Zealand speakers include Sarah Dods (CSIRO), Leif Hanlen (NICTA), Len Gray (the University of Queensland’s Centre for Online Health) and Pat Kerr (NZ Telehealth Forum).

Proceedings will be published in a special issue of the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare and a volume of the IOS series Studies in Health Technology and Informatics. There will also be a comprehensive trade display and social functions, including a conference dinner. Satellite events supporting the conference themes are also being planned.

More information is available at the conference website or from the Australasian Telehealth Society.

Author Details

Laurie Wilson
Honorary Secretary, Australasian Telehealth Society
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Laurie is a Post Retirement Fellow at the CSIRO ICT Centre, Adjunct Professor at the University of Technology Sydney and Honorary Secretary of the Australasian Telehealth Society. He has spent 35 years researching technology in healthcare, including medical imaging, advanced telehealth systems and human factors.

Posted in Australian eHealth

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