How digital innovations are helping rural people

  • Dr Shaun Francis, Executive General Manager, Virtual Health and Clinical Informatics, Royal Flying Doctor Service Queensland Section
    Dr Shaun Francis, Executive General Manager, Virtual Health and Clinical Informatics, Royal Flying Doctor Service Queensland Section
  • Claire Bridson, Director, Digital Health Applications, Clinical Information Application Support, Grampians Health
    Claire Bridson, Director, Digital Health Applications, Clinical Information Application Support, Grampians Health
Australasian Institute of Digital Health

A virtual ward implemented by the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Queensland and digital medical record expansion in Victoria’s Grampians region are just two examples of how digital innovations can improve outcomes for patients in rural and remote areas.

The virtual ward has been operating within the RFDS Queensland Section telehealth service since July 2022 and complements face-to-face services, enabling doctors and nurses to remotely manage and follow up patients and continue engagement throughout the course of their health needs, beyond a single encounter.

The telehealth service receives about 24,000 calls a year, and many of these patients are supported by the virtual ward for ongoing care in combination with the RFDS’ Medical Chest for medication access.

RFDS Queensland Executive General Manager of Virtual Health and Clinical Informatic and Cairns GP Dr Shaun Francis, said geographical remoteness of many patients limited access to services but the virtual ward allowed carefully selected patients to be managed at home, in their communities, through regular contact with medical care.

 He said displacement of patients, carers and families from their home environment was disruptive, could be socially isolating and have significant financial impacts but where possible the service supported patients in their home and the virtual ward ensured continued engagement and awareness of their clinical state and medical needs. If care escalation was needed, aeromedical retrieval could be provided.

Shaun said he joined the Flying Doctors because of the challenge of delivering care in resource poor settings, the honour and privilege of being able to provide care to patients and communities who are often overlooked and disadvantaged, and to contribute to the awesome work the service holds as its mission - to deliver the finest care to the furthest corner and provide the ‘mantle of safety’ for rural and remote Australia. Although challenging, it was rewarding as it was clear the difference these efforts made to people’s health and wellbeing, he said.

Shaun is a member of Australasia’s peak body for digital health, the Australasian Institute of Digital Health (AIDH), and was recently elected to its Board.

“Digital health is fast becoming a determinant of health outcomes. Inequities captured in the Australian Digital Inclusion Index of access, ability and affordability are amplified by the tyranny of distance related to rural and remote Australia. “My role is to ensure that rural and remote communities have access to high quality healthcare regardless of their location and digital health is a key factor in addressing those needs,” he said.

“Through support and engagement with the AIDH I hope to continue advocacy for the rural and remote contexts and help articulate some of the challenges and complexities facing digital and health equity. There is significant synergy between these two roles and at RFDS we are aware of the potential for digital innovation to increase rather than decrease the divide when not implemented with due consideration.”

Another AIDH member improving outcomes for rural patients, Claire Bridson, spent more than 20 years as an occupational therapist in hospitals before accepting an ambulatory care coordinator/data manager role involving implementation of a new scheduling system at Ballarat Health Services (BHS), now Grampians Health, to capture clinical activity across several outpatient data sets.

She was instrumental in implementing the BHS digital medical record and rolling it out to nine more hospitals.

“I loved OT, but digital health has become my passion as there is so much potential to improve access to information and patient outcomes,” she said. She is currently working to improve access to My Health Record in residential aged care and use of electronic systems region-wide.

Claire recently completed the AIDH’s Women in Digital Health Leadership course which included in-person retreats focusing on a range of leadership skills with a focus on the digital health environment. She said the course was fantastic and particularly liked the time allowing focus on personal leadership strengths and direction. Claire, who has a Certified Health Informatician Australasia (CHIA) qualification from the AIDH, said the institute was a great source of education, networking and online events.

The AIDH represents a united and influential single voice for health informatics, digital health leaders and practitioners, with members working in varied roles in healthcare. Health informatics involves applying computing power, technologies and algorithms to benefit patients and improve understanding and management of medical information.

Its highlights this year have included hosting over 2500 delegates at the world’s premier digital health and health informatics conference, MedInfo23 in Sydney, and delivering its first AI.Care conference in November 2023 on how to implement artificial intelligence safely and ethically in healthcare. An Australian roadmap for AI in healthcare, the National Policy Roadmap for Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare, developed by the Australian Alliance for AI in Healthcare, was launched at the conference by its founder, AIDH member and Fellow, Professor Enrico Coiera.

In 2024, the Institute will advocate strongly for adoption of the roadmap, which it contributed to, and will continue to deliver conferences, courses, education and policy to support its vision of healthier lives, digitally enabled. Over the next 12 months, the Institute plans to launch major initiatives to prepare the health workforce to use digital technologies. AIDH will also convene HIC 2024 as the annual meeting for the digital health community in Brisbane from August 5-7. AIDH welcomes more rural Australians as Members or Fellows.  

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