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Telehealth could be the answer for better aged care

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One of the key challenges for our ageing population is access to medical services.

The current model for aged care patients with limited mobility imposes big demands for time on clinicians, who are frequently required to leave their surgeries and travel to see their patients. 

When access to medical services is inadequate, health outcomes are poorer and there are increased visits to hospital emergency departments.

The recent Commission of Audit report recognised that Australia’s health system is not equipped to face future challenges posed by our ageing population, and recommended the Government explore opportunities to improve efficiency in health care delivery and effectiveness.

One option for achieving just this is through greater use of telehealth.

In 2013 the Federal Government, through its $20.6 million Telehealth Pilots Program, funded several pilot projects to investigate the potential for improved health care delivery through telehealth. 

Of particular interest to the AMA Committee for Healthy Ageing is the $2.5 million project, led by Flinders University, which is investigating the effectiveness of online technologies to support aged and palliative care patients in South Australia.

The Flinders University project aims to demonstrate increased access to team care and specialist clinical services, and fewer unnecessary hospital admissions.

At conclusion, the project will evaluate a technologically enhanced model of providing care, and propose costing and governance arrangements to support ongoing operation.

In the Flinders University study, 145 palliative and aged care patients have been given a mobile tablet configured with simple access buttons. The tablet is their portal for access to medical care in the comfort of their own home.

The University has reported solid progress since services began operating in mid-2013.  Patients reported feeling more connected to their clinician when using videoconferencing than using the telephone. In turn, the technology enables health care providers to review more patients, and in a way that is more targeted to assessment scores. They can also monitor patients in real time, without the delays associated with travel time.

The key challenges to the use of telehealth in Australia lie in the technology. Start-up costs, transmission quality and data security are all hurdles.

To address these problems, the Telehealth Financial Incentives Program offered incentives to eligible health professionals and aged care services to encourage investment in video technology to enable consultations with specialists, consultant physicians and consultant psychiatrists. More than 3000 specialist providers took up the incentive during its four years of operation.

We are all looking for a better health care delivery model for ageing Australians, and improved opportunities to coordinate care across providers.

The early signs are that telehealth technology has potential to offer an efficient and effective solution. It is hoped a successful Flinders University telehealth trial will provide the foundation for wider telehealth service development and implementation to support our care for our older patients.