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Universal broadband offers better health for the bush

The introduction of universal high-speed broadband will make available everywhere a range of health services not currently available to much of rural and remote Australia.

Universal access to high-speed broadband at a uniform retail price has the capacity to transform Australia's rural and remote areas just as surely as the merino and the mine have done over the last 200 years.

And some of the greatest benefits will be seen in the health of people who live in rural and remote areas of Australia. This was the National Rural Health Alliance's (NRHA) message in evidence presented last week to a public hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications Inquiry into the role and potential of the National Broadband Network.

"The introduction of universal high-speed broadband will make available everywhere a range of health services that are currently technically feasible but only available now where there is point-to-point fibre," said NRHA chair, Dr Jenny May.

"Currently this excludes much of rural and remote Australia."

"Real time videoconferencing and transfer of digital images such as x-rays, CAT scans, zooming in on wounds or lesions and exchange of other information will make a tremendous difference in providing interactive emergency support, primary care and health care at home."

It should be possible to have a real time videoconference consultation between a remote outpost where there are, for example, several burns patients following a serious accident and the acute burns specialist team in a major urban centre, May said.

“In primary care, an Aboriginal health worker in an Aboriginal Medical Service would be able to talk with a specialist or GP about management of a diabetic foot ulcer from the patient's bedside in an aged care facility. And a nurse practitioner would be able to liaise in real time with a GP or specialist in a community 200km away.

“Like anyone else, people in rural and remote communities want to stay at home for as long as possible as they age. Technologies such as video monitoring in the home would provide added safety and support in more isolated situations, such as for people with early dementia.”

The key principle, she said, is functional universality at a uniform retail price - the capacity for the smallest health centres to use e-health technologies to provide care, thus reducing isolation and improving patients' health.

"A uniform retail price will almost certainly depend on political decisions on demand, supply and pricing. This is why we believe there should be a bipartisan political commitment to the principle of high-speed broadband for everyone - irrespective of their location," May said.

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