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As the peak body for rural and remote health in Australia, the National Rural Health Alliance has been a vocal supporter of telehealth and the many benefits that it can bring, especially for those outside of metropolitan areas.


In the wake of COVID-19, we spoke to Dr Gabrielle O’Kane, CEO of the National Rural Health Alliance to hear about how people in regional, rural and remote Australia were adapting to telehealth and what the future may hold for this technology-driven approach to healthcare.

What are the benefits of telehealth for regional Australians?


Telehealth is incredibly important for people in rural, regional and remote Australia who often have poorer access to health care. This poorer access is often because of greater distances, lack of public transport, and more dispersed services. Telehealth provides an alternative for consumers who might otherwise delay or avoid managing their health care, but it is only a part of the picture. It must not replace face-to-face care services in rural, regional and remote Australia, but should instead complement these face-to-face services where they are unable to be provided. Telehealth should also where possible be delivered by local practitioners and not out of the major cities by bigger corporate firms, which takes jobs away from rural areas and ultimately diminishes quality healthcare for rural communities.


Has there been a noticeable uptake of telehealth in regional Australia during the COVID-19 crisis?


Yes, COVID-19 has seen a dramatic uptake in telehealth consultations. This has been largely due to the Australian Government expanding the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) items available for practitioners to offer telehealth services. Telehealth has allowed patients to keep up their regular health checks and proactively manage their health care if they are, for example, they don’t want to visit a health practitioner because of the risk of catching COVID-19 from other patients, or are self-isolating. It has also helped practitioners who themselves are in a vulnerable group (for example people who are pregnant or immunocompromised) conduct consultations from their own home and not put themselves at risk.


What do you see as the future of telehealth in regional Australia? Will it play a greater role in health care moving forward?


Telehealth can and should play a greater role in the way people in rural, regional and remote Australia access health care after COVID-19, so we want to see many of the MBS items for telehealth remain in place after the pandemic. But we do need to ensure that local jobs are protected and that telehealth, delivered out of the major cities, does not replace face-to-face consultations or telehealth delivered by locals. After all, face-to-face appointments will always be vital and there are many services that simply can’t be delivered remotely.

 

How would greater internet connectivity help the adoption of telehealth in the regions?


Better internet connectivity is a very important part of the picture. In order for people in rural, regional and remote Australia to be able to access telehealth, they need to have a high-quality internet connection that is reliable, has enough data, and is affordable. We acknowledge that NBN Co has made some changes to respond to COVID-19 but still hear from consumers and practitioners about poor quality internet, especially in remote communities.

 

Is there anything else you think our readers should know?


Digital literacy is another important aspect [of telehealth]. Telehealth is only successful when consumers have the digital skills to use the technology and health care providers are comfortable with delivering the service via technology. We call for greater investment in health literacy and digital literacy programs for both consumers and practitioners.