It is predicted that by 2020, the average Australian household will have 29 devices connected to the internet.
And for those living in regional Australia, some of those devices will allow them to improve their health outcomes.
An Australian Bureau of Statistics report released in March 2018 also shows that the percentage of internet users using the internet for health services and health research has jumped to 46.1 per cent in 2016-2017 (up from 21.8 per cent in 2014-2015).
A white paper produced by the University of New South Wales and Telstra, looked at the impact technology is having on our regions in a variety of areas, including health, with some technological advances opening up some interesting health management options for rural Australians.
One of the biggest advances has been the growth of telehealth and telemedicine services, such as SwiftDoc, which allow medical professionals to consult with rural patients. Patients can connect via video link, removing the need for travel, and also reducing strain on regional health service providers who might already be stretched beyond capacity.
In addition, in the last couple of years, the Department of Health, through its Better Access Initiative, has been progressively expanding telehealth options to deliver a greater range of mental health and psychological services, expanding avenues of support available to regional patients. This is timely, as reflected in a National Rural Health Alliance Fact Sheet in 2017, which indicated that the “number of psychiatrists, mental health nurses and psychologists in rural/regional areas in 2015 were, respectively, 36 per cent, 78 per cent and 57 per cent (per capita) those of the major cities.”
Other technological innovations are becoming more commonplace. For example, there is now a wealth of apps and wearable devices to track diet and exercise, measure blood glucose, heart rates and so on. These encourage patients to keep a closer eye on their health, thus minimising trips to visit health professionals, and also gather data they can share with their medical practitioner on video consultations.
There is also growth in the number of medical-grade wearables linked to the internet, taking measures such as blood pressure and oxygen saturation, again offering potential for rural Australians to take care of their health remotely in ways they could not previously, and feeding back valuable data to urban-based specialists, cutting back on the need for in-person check-ups.
An exciting development is that of haptically-enabled robotics (HER), a project led by Melbourne’s Deakin University. These robots allow a practitioner to remotely control a robot arm from elsewhere in Australia. For example, a sonographer could perform an ultrasound on a patient remotely by HER, talking to the patient in real time, as if they were both in the same room. This technology could greatly increase access to sonography services for regional Australians, helping with detection and treatment of conditions such as heart disease.
Some of these advances, such as tele-medicine are here already; some are in the not-too-distant future, and there could soon be a day when regional Australians, through technology, might have access to the range of specialist medical services enjoyed by their urban counterparts, with less need to travel. These technological advances also help with early detection, enhance patient care, cut health-related travel costs and reduce the strain on regional medical centres. Perhaps sometime soon we’ll even be delivering prescriptions to patients by drone!