Doing away with Skype for remote specialist care

Telstra Health hopes to replace the need to use Skype for specialist telehealth consultations as part of the infrastructure it is building in association with the Northern Territory government.

Telstra Health announced this week it had been chosen by NT Health to build a National Telehealth Connection Service, which has been devised by the state and territory health department CIOs to become a foundation for connecting video consultations around the country.

It involves a cloud-based connection service that can be accessed by clinicians to allow them to make two-way or multiple consultations, as well as sharing patient information in a timely manner.

Telstra and NT Health have already been piloting the new service in Tennant Creek, Katherine and Alice Springs to provide remote communities with access to specialists by video conference. Telstra is currently connecting two Aboriginal Medical Service clinics – the Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation and Santa Teresa Health Centre, run by the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress – to the NT Health network.

The NT already has a thriving telehealth sector, with the major hospitals hooked up to fibre optic cable and an ongoing project that allows hospital-based specialist and emergency clinicians to video conference with community clinics through ceiling-mounted, high-definition web cameras.

However, providing specialist consultations to very remote clinics has proved harder. The partnership with Telstra aims to initially improve infrastructure to allow two-way or multiple video consultations with patients in their communities.

NT Health Minister Robyn Lambley said the service allows patients to attend their local health centre with a clinician and perhaps with their family, and speak to hospital-based specialists via video link.

“Telehealth also provides the opportunity for smaller hospitals to instantly tap into specialists in larger hospitals for better emergency treatment, as well as doing away with the need to travel for outpatient or pre-treatment appointments,” Ms Lambley said.

The NT has secured funding of $300,000 from the federal government's Digital Regions initiative to develop the new service. Some of the money will go towards a technology upgrade to allow seamless connections from one end point to another regardless of the equipment and software.

“At the moment there are restrictions with the software and hardware in telehealth and this project is aimed at fixing this,” Ms Lambley said.

Telstra Health managing director Shane Solomon said in its initial stages, the National Telehealth Connection Service would focus on infrastructure, but it would also involve setting up a unified scheduling system to overcome one of the main barriers to wider provision of specialist video consults.

“In the first instance what we're building is an infrastructure service that is not dependent on specialised equipment,” Mr Solomon said. “It is a cloud-based service, which is obviously the only way to get it into remote communities, but it's done with all of the health-grade security needed. We see this, and I believe the CIOs of Australia, as a first step.

“To make this really easy and efficient nationally, it needs a scheduling system so that people don't have to do a point-to-point phone call to try and organise a video conference.”

Telstra Health has a licensing agreement with Canada's Telus Health for its iScheduler online scheduling platform that also includes store and forward capabilities that allows patient information and records to be created and distributed.

“We are definitely looking for something more like the Ontario Telemedicine Network and the first step, with what we've done with the NT, is to get the connection across the state and across government [networks]," Mr Solomon said. "Fundamentally, it will replace the need for Skype with superior quality video conferencing, and it enables the transfer of information.”

NT Health CIO Stephen Moo said this was a project that could transform the delivery of healthcare across Australia.

“That's why the National Health CIO Forum recognised the importance of achieving a clinical-grade telehealth service based on agreed, national telehealth standards,” Mr Moo said. “This exciting initiative breaks down the technical barriers that currently exist within telehealth networks in Australia today.

“This solution will break down the silos and allow patients and clinicians to connect to multiple health service partners. Telehealth connectivity and interoperability is enabled through a cloud-based connection service, allowing any health service provider to make seamless, quality connections to one or more other health service providers.

“This service has the potential to become a national service that will greatly benefit consumers, health service providers and healthcare organisations, spanning the public, private and aged care sectors.”

Ms Lambley said negotiations were currently underway with SA Health to run clinics with the Alice Springs Hospital, including cancer services, Royal Adelaide Hospital burns clinics, rehabilitation and liver transplant consultations.

Posted in Australian eHealth

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