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Videoconferencing: the time has come

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The AMA has recognised the role that modern technology can play in providing an adjunct to face-to-face consultations.

Within the AMA List of Medical Services and Fees, November 2013, are a number of video consultation and telehealth items that can enhance patient care. At the moment, many of these services are a step ahead of the items included in the Medicare Benefits Schedule for patient rebates.

Nevertheless, these technologies are developing rapidly, and it can only be a matter of time before the benefits of using modern technology to provide some services to patients in this way are fully recognised.

When interacting with country health services in Western Australia, I have been fortunate to observe first hand the value of video consultations, as well as the use of videoconferencing for meetings or to improve the frequency of communication with health consumer groups.

Commonwealth Government agencies such as the Independent Hospital Pricing Authority have been making extensive use of videoconferencing as a meeting format. As a participant in these meetings, I can say that the technology has generally worked well. In particular, my experience has been that it is a considerable advance on telephone conferencing, especially for larger groups.

The AMA’s business has traditionally been conducted through face-to-face meetings using a committee format, although some of our committees, such as Finance and the Council of Salaried Doctors, have conducted much of their business by teleconference.

During the past year, the Public Health Committee has conducted business by a combination of face-to-face meetings, teleconferences and email exchanges to finalise Position Statements. The Therapeutics Committee has conducted business by teleconference and email exchange.

Face-to-face meetings provide collegial interaction and the opportunity for informal interactions during meeting breaks. Members benefit from both verbal and visual communication, and it is easy to share documents in hard copy or have them displayed on a screen.

However, face-to-face meetings incur costs for travel, accommodation and venue hire, all significant parts of the AMA’s expenditure. The costs also mean the meetings are relatively infrequent and usually occupy a whole day or weekend.

 

Being able to commit to such long meetings, especially when they are held interstate, may inhibit significant parts of the profession from participating in Federal AMA activities, particularly when there are considerable family commitments.

The AMA needs to recognise these barriers to member participation, particularly in policy development, where member voices needs to be heard, and find ways by which they can be overcome.

Teleconferences work well for procedural matters with a well defined agenda that includes mainly issues for information or decision, especially when the group on the teleconference knows each other well and is not too large.

They are, however, subject to problems with maintaining connections, they only allow verbal communication, and it can be difficult to share documents in real time.

The technology associated with videoconferencing has been improving. It has the potential to provide better interaction and document sharing than teleconferences, and are of lower cost than face-to-face meetings.

While there is a set up cost for hardware and software, the reality is that most members will have the computing capacity and internet connections needed in their practices and at home.

At a time when there is an increasing need to be more agile and responsive in the face of expectations that organisations will provide submissions to Government proposals within ever-shorter deadlines, the AMA needs to adapt to the environment in which we work. Videoconferencing could allow more frequent and shorter meetings, enhancing the AMA’s responsiveness but without the time commitment involved in travelling to face-to-face meetings.

It is noticeable that the AMA’s the processes for public policy development have been gradually changing over time, with greater use of email input from the members of Federal Council and its Committees and Councils, and the use of smaller, time-limited working groups to develop draft Position Statements.

Videoconferencing is another tool that we can use. It is not a complete substitute for face-to-face meetings, but it potentially means these will have to be less frequent, reducing the time commitment required for members to participate, and providing a means to accelerate the process of policy development between face-to-face meetings.

Trials of videoconferencing are currently underway within the Secretariat after an examination of the many videoconferencing options that are now available.

These trials use a system that allows participants to join a videoconference from their own computer once it has the relevant software and is equipped with a suitable camera and speakers.

I anticipate that a measured rollout will then occur, with videoconferencing increasingly used by committees as an improvement on teleconferences.

It’s a technology whose time has come, whether that be for patient care or our work for the AMA.

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