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Telehealth diagnosed as welcome cure

Despite the never-ending expectations placed upon it, Australia’s health care system is one of the best in the world.

As a classic information intensive sector of the economy, health care stands to benefit significantly from harnessing the power of the online revolution.

Locally, it can mean a superior level of collaboration and improved services to all (but especially remote) Australians.

Internationally, adding the communications revolution to the quality and strength of the medical/health sector provides the basis for significant export potential.

Telemedicine, so called, has been emerging in Australia for some years. Generally speaking, telemedicine means using information technology and telecommunications to deliver medical service and information from one location to another.

The use of the phrase Telehealth serves to remind us that new tele-communications technologies can and should be used for a multitude of health related purposes, not just clinical diagnosis.

In the early years of the online revolution in the medical/health sector, key delivery technologies have included telephone, fax, email, videoconferencing, teleradiology, telepathology, www online health services and wide area networks for medical records.

I found it interesting that as recently as last year one of the key indicators of the growth of telemedicine in Australia was a measure of the increase in the number of videoconferencing sites.

The number, incidentally, has grown from thirty to more than 250 between 1994 and 1998. During this period the applications in Australian telemedicine which have tended to dominate have been telepsychiatry and teleradiology.

The basis of future growth in this field seems to hinge on the declining cost of videoconferencing units and systems, the wider availability of ISDN, increased involvement of private health practitioners and anticipated changes to the Medicare schedule of benefits.

It seems that the demand pull for increased online activity in this field stems from rising expectations for telemedicine to the home, to aged care centres, to correctional services, aboriginal communities, the Defence Forces and ambulance services.

The rapid spread of the Internet is providing the delivery vehicle in the form of the www and this clearly has export implications.

Major benefits of applying the online technologies to the medical /health sector are readily apparent and include such things as;

• Reduced costs of patient movement

• Reduced costs of moving staff

• Savings through minimising laboratory tests

• Increased use of highly skilled medical staff

• More effective treatment for patients

• Reduced costs of travel for patients.

The barriers are similar to those encountered by other sectors making the journey from the old paradigm to the new. Medico legal issues are significant, as is the lack of registration of all health care professionals.

The high costs of satellite services and poor telecommunications into some areas are a deterrent. Some will argue that the whole initiative is simply being technology driven.

Issues such as poor computer literacy, privacy and security challenges and a lack of technical standards will all be resolved with a sensible mix of complementary action by professional bodies, industry partners and various levels of government.

A significant amount of Australian clinical research and technology sits waiting to be commercialised. The new online environment presents a classic opportunity.

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