THE Johnson Space Centre, on the outskirts of Houston, Texas, is an unlikely birthplace for a scheme transforming healthcare in regional Australia.
The idea of online patient consultations was first developed by NASA boffins during the 1960s after the need emerged to remotely monitor the health of astronauts.
Nearly 50 years later, telehealth is sweeping through rural and regional Australia, breaking down barriers country residents have long encountered just to see a doctor or specialist.
Since Medicare rebates were extended to include telehealth sessions in the middle of last year, the number of recorded consultations has exploded by up to 660 per cent.
Its surging popularity is no surprise to Denise Dillon, whose teenage son’s recovery after falling into a fire in 2010 was made easier and cheaper by telehealth.
Online conferencing spared her son from taking gruelling 320 kilometre trips between the remote Victorian town of Wycheproof and Melbourne for short, routine consultations.
“We wouldn’t have hesitated getting into the car and going down to Melbourne if we felt it was needed but we knew it wasn’t really necessary to take that trip just to have a doctor take a quick look and say ‘yeah, that’s all going really well’,” she said.
“For rural areas, having this option is such a great opportunity, especially for our ageing population.”
Dr Ash Collins, who has created a telemedicine service at his practice in the regional NSW town of Temora, said telehealth was infiltrating the health scene at such a rate people would soon wonder how they ever managed without it.
He said it had the potential to help ease the medical crisis crippling small country towns.
“Obviously we don’t want to ignore the importance of face-to-face consultations,” Dr Collins said.
“The reality is many consultations cannot take place via telemedicine but for others, telemedicine could actually be a superior option, compared to face-to-face.”
“For example, for a 68-year old patient who has had a hip replacement, a virtual consultation is far better than sitting in a car for hours to go to a 10-minute review visit.”
In September this year, 5384 telehealth claims were processed by Medicare – four times more than in the same month in 2011.
In June this year, the number of claims reached a record high 6393 – or more than 200 a day. Medicare has this year already processed 35,995 claims.
Telehealth is most popular in Queensland, followed by NSW and WA.
Dr Collins said higher internet speeds through the National Broadband Network would accelerate usage.
“We’re dying for higher bandwidth,” he said.
“Higher quality of video and audio would make the consultation more comfortable. At the moment, you sometimes encounter problems with bandwidth and the consultation needs to be abandoned and initiated again. But using the NBN will give us crystal-clear quality video and audio.”
The president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Dr Liz Marles, said many GPs were still guarded about online consultations. The cost of equipment was one factor.
“(Also) I think with any new technologies and new ways of doing things, there are doctors who like to pioneer things and others who like to wait and see just what extra benefit it brings and how much easier it will make life. But regardless, I don’t ever really expect telehealth to be a major part of general practice.”
Department of Human Services data shows about 2000 GPs, nurse practioners and midwifes now offer telehealth services, along with about 500 consultant physicians, 300 specialists and 300 psychiatrists.
Despite its growing popularity, the federal government is slowly winding back the amount of money it offers to help cover the cost of installing telehealth equipment.
The subsidy began at $6000 but will go to $3900 next financial year and be axed entirely in 2014.
From January, telehealth Medicare rebates will be off limits to residents in capital cities.