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Distance no longer a barrier

Elderly people and their carers are finding it much easier to use telehealth consultations, especially in remote areas. By Lara Caughey


Three Queensland aged care services are a driving force behind the introduction of telehealth into rural communities, helping to relieve the stress of older people travelling long distances for specialist appointments.

Telehealth, a video-consultation system, provides a practical alternative to face-to-face appointments by removing barriers those who have difficulty getting to a specialist or who live in rural and remote areas.

Lutheran Community Care's aged care services in Orana (Kingaroy), St Paul's (Caboolture) and Salem (Toowoomba) have introduced the technology.

A specialist such as a psychiatrist can be sitting in front of a computer in one location and the patient can watch a computer screen in a different location.

Orana Lutheran complex manager Richard Fahy has used telehealth for two residents' specialist appointments thus far with more on the cards. At a conference in Sydney, Modern Aged Care 2012: Responding to the Challenge through Technology, he encouraged other aged care services to embrace the technology.

He spoke about the outcomes of his case studies, including linking a psychogeriatrician in Toowoomba with assistance for a resident with dementia, and another with a service for wound care assessment. "The specialist was very happy with the quality of imaging and was able to make clinical decisions based on what [was seen]," he said.

"It was a time saver for a frail resident who benefitted with clinical care without the tiring travel involved to Brisbane."

Another telehealth consultation will take place at Orana with Alzheimer's Australia (Queensland) focusing on occupational therapy in high care.

Orana has recently worked with the RSL Kingaroy-Merambi to establish a veterans support centre run by the RSL. This will also be an area that Orana will provide community resource access for those veterans needing a video-consultation.

Fahy has attracted the interest of a doctor from Armidale in NSW who is now looking to implement the technology. "She is keen to progress rural communities in NSW."

Fahy said some of the immediate advantages about telehealth include reducing morbidity and family anxiety associated with the long trips to access specialised care.

"It also helps reduce staff impacts by removing some needs to escort residents where a telehealth consultation may suffice. Industry groups shouldn't be afraid of the infrastructure costs associated with the venture just start small and see how your service will benefit from the technology."

Fahy said aged care services really need to engage with GPs and colleges to assist them with launching telehealth. "The relationship connection with colleges in rural and remote medicine areas need to be strongly built so services can have a stronger foundation to setup," he said.

"It is critical to get the support from primary health groups and GPs. Wound care and dementia assessment are two really strong areas where we need it [telehealth]. It results in better care for residents. A nursing staff member can drive it, help maintain and grow the project."

Vicki Sheedy, e-health strategic programs manager for the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, said she is pleased Orana was at the forefront of the aged care sector in terms of telehealth.

Fahy said Medicare can approve telehealth to be used in a residential aged care setting and provide the incentive payment of $6000 to set it up.

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