The role of telehealth in modern health care


In recent years teleconsultations have played a growing role in the delivery of healthcare and support services across Australia.

Once reserved for rural patients or those with restricted mobility, COVID-19 has seen telehealth expand to deliver essential services when restrictions limited the number of patients allowed on-premises.

Far from a stop-gap measure, these services are set to become one of the standout legacies from the global pandemic. The government has announced it will invest AU$100 million towards making telehealth a permanent option in the healthcare system.

This comes on the back of consistent research indicating confidence in the method and a lasting appetite for its convenience. A recent white paper by Deloitte, Curtin University and the Consumers Health Forum of Australia found that seven in 10 Australians are willing and ready to use virtual health services.

The research also found that geographical disparity is one of the biggest causes of inconsistent patient outcomes across the country. With the availability of videoconferencing services, people no longer need to leave their homes to receive care, and providers can ensure those in inaccessible areas aren’t left behind.

We saw an example of this in the remote aboriginal community of Tjuntjuntjara in Western Australia, which, during March 2020 and January 2021, faced a shortage of healthcare professionals due to a state border closure with South Australia. Following the introduction of telehealth services, the 160 residents had reliable access to virtual care for chronic conditions and mental health issues.

While adoption of telehealth services has climbed, there is also a degree of scepticism around its long-term viability.

Dr Peter Pronovost, a renowned expert in medical innovation encapsulated this attitude best, “There’s a lot of focus on shiny objects, rather than on solving problems.”

It’s true providers cannot rely purely on telephony or simple videoconferencing software and expect it to provide a comparable experience to a traditional hospital or doctor’s office.

Given the challenges around resource shortages, patients across the country might avoid seeking healthcare altogether if the telehealth experience is not easy to navigate and free of excessive wait times or interruptions.

On the provider side of the coin, a clunky or ineffective solution could increase the administrative workload for staff, exacerbating stretched resources and ultimately driving more people away from the healthcare sector.

A dent in Australia’s reserves of skilled nurses, for instance, could seriously exacerbate the health crisis. Recent research has found that due to burnout resulting from staff shortages, more than a quarter of primary healthcare nurses in Australia have indicated a desire to quit their jobs.

Addressing challenges of the future

Healthcare organisations need to create a telehealth environment from the ground up — one that addresses the specific pain points felt by people across the country.

This begins with a unified system that can integrate with existing applications, allowing healthcare providers to seamlessly expand capabilities, thereby easing the frustration that comes with fragmented encounters between staff and patients.

A solution that enables flexible integrations saves staff from trawling through external systems to access patients’ medical histories and referrals, readily drawing on electronic medical records (EMRs), decision support and diagnostics systems to provide patients with uninterrupted virtual experiences.

In a practical example, healthcare organisations can reduce the duration of individual consultations by rolling out a secure, virtual waiting room that patients can access with dedicated, private web links. This allows them to be automatically identified, authenticated and admitted to a virtual doctor’s office, providing visibility over the journey and closely mirroring traditional healthcare visits.

Patients should also be empowered to book appointments, receive medical advice and complete payment processes in the one spot. If each step of their journey involves separate applications, with different login credentials and interfaces, administrative staff will expend time and resources explaining each process, hindering the overall impression of care and support.

Additionally, this flexibility will allow providers to easily expand upon telehealth solutions when new technologies and processes emerge across the industry. Some hospitals, for instance, have begun creating a telehealth ‘metaverse’, extending health care beyond isolated consultations to include pre and post care, the delivery of medication and more.

Singular Health, for example, has begun experimenting with virtual reality as part of its telehealth services, with patients and practitioners communicating via virtual reality headsets from any location in the world. The technology allows 2D images to be transferred from a page to a 3D virtual reality where healthcare workers can gain a 360-degree view of medical afflictions, such as tumours, and provide real-time consultations to patients.

To leverage these initiatives with minimal set-up time and disruption to services, a unified system that can seamlessly draw on historical patient information is essential.

Telehealth is set to become a crucial pillar across Australia’s healthcare sector, not only to compensate for scarce resources and navigate pandemic mandates, but to ensure the delivery and availability of health care is the same for all people, regardless of their geographical location.

To elevate the experience beyond simplistic measures and provide services that are on the same level as, or even better than, traditional healthcare appointments, these environments need to address the needs of patients and staff, and be adaptable and geared for the healthcare challenges of the future.

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