COVID-19 has made a considerable impact on the way children’s charity Royal Far West delivers some of its health, education and developmental care services to children and families in rural communities.
CEO Lindsay Cane AM explains, "The COVID-19 crisis has super-charged our capabilities to deliver our traditionally face-to-face services online. We’ve responded to the rapidly changing health and social landscape by innovating and adapting our service model to expand our telehealth services so that children and families in rural communities can receive the support they need".
In March this year, COVID-19 caused the temporary closure of Royal Far West’s Centre for Country Kids in Manly and its community outreach programs. In response, the charity pivoted the majority of its face-to-face services to a telehealth model, and moved its existing Telecare services, delivered primarily into schools, to a home-based model. This has allowed rural and remote children and families to continue accessing affordable and specialised services, including Paediatrics, Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy and Psychology, with minimal disruption.
Royal Far West’s staff, including its 80+ paediatric clinicians, were quick to adapt to working from home.
Business Director Jacqui Emery says, "Last year we supported nearly 10,000 people through our programs. We’re thrilled we’ve been able to deliver 80 per cent of our services through virtual services. Some families do prefer our face-to-face service delivery, which will be offered again when it’s safe to do so, but we’re delighted at the success of pivoting most of our services online during this time, enabling us to reach country kids in their own homes".
To understand the impact of COVID-19 on families and their service access in rural communities, Royal Far West sought feedback from more than 850 parents, carers and school staff throughout April 2020.
When asked how COVID-19 had affected their service, family and/or community, many of the 92 parents and carers who responded were enjoying the new way of engaging with Royal Far West during this time, and many even pointed to unexpected benefits.
One parent said, "We are home schooling now, so I am able to sit in on sessions with my child’’, and remarked that they had appreciated being able to meet the therapist during the online face-to-face sessions.
However, poor internet access remains a barrier for many for service delivery into homes, and this added to other COVID-19 impacts. Some parents reported they faced multiple stresses including poor internet connection, increasing costs of connectivity, difficulties adjusting to home schooling, financial problems and/or job losses, and their children were missing their friends.
When Principals were asked, "how has COVID-19 affected the Telecare service at your school?", the comments were generally positive about families now receiving Telecare services at their homes, but concern over internet connection in regional areas was significant.
"All our Royal Far West client families are keeping their children at home. Internet connection is not always reliable in our rural setting.
Our families have welcomed the opportunity to participate in the sessions from home."
Overall, Royal Far West data showed that, of the respondents who received their services via Telecare, 94 per cent of participants found the technology easy or very easy to operate during their session. In comparing their service to in-person services, 90 per cent agreed that Telecare was comparable to in-person services.
Many of the children and families impacted by COVID-19 had already been experiencing the adverse effects of the drought. The focus for Royal Far West has been, and continues to be, to innovate and deliver services in the best possible way to ensure country kids can access the vital care they need to reach their full potential.