The importance of broadband to health outcomes in rural and remote Australia

  • RFDS aircraft on red dirt runway with 4wd and two people aproaching plane

Photo credit: RFDS

Martin Laverty
Royal Flying Doctor Service

The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) is a health charity and certainly not expert in broadband, but broadband is increasingly becoming a significant part of the development of the Flying Doctor services.

What if, in the future, we didn’t have to spend roughly $15,000 for each electrocardiogram machine that weighs about 3.5 kilograms within our aircraft (and we have 68 of them)? What if we had a technology that could provide us the same outcome for little cost and little weight for our planes?

Today I have on my phone an app that costs only 99 cents to download. It is a little clip-on to my phone and it takes my ECG and I am then able to email this. If I was in a remote part of Australia I might be emailing it to the Flying Doctor in advance of the aircraft arriving, to give the doctor a diagnosis prior to their arrival. This is not yet in service within the RFDS, and it won’t be for some time. The technology operates in the cloud and if we don’t have sufficient access to the cloud across every inch of Australia, with the security and stability that we need, we can’t yet rely on this technology. An app such as this is cheaper and more effective and gives a stunning opportunity to give clinical care at the point where it’s needed faster than we are able to at present. But we still operate in an environment where broadband, if it exists, is patchy and unreliable.

We need to get the National Broadband Network working in this country - the point is not that of arguing about the type of broadband that’s available and how it is delivered -- but rather that people’s lives can be saved by the opportunities of the technology.

This year the RFDS will consult about 100,000 rural and remote Australians over the telephone and provide them with tele-health. It’s a distinctly different service to an after-hours GP line operating in city areas. In the bush you don’t have the option of a referral to a suburban GP practice or a hospital emergency department. Of the 100,000 calls that we will take this year, where a GP consults with a patient over the phone, 98 per cent of the consultations will be concluded during the call. That is, the GP, with the patient, will solve over the phone 98 per cent of the matters presented. It is a very different type of service and it has risen out of having almost no other choice.

We have video conferencing platforms but we are not yet in a position as a health care provider to rely on video conferencing, despite the evidence of its efficacy - that the clinical outcome is far superior and that it will much better inform the diagnosis the doctor makes. We are not yet able to do it because the capability of the broadband in the areas in which we work (and where our patients live) is not yet consistent or stable to support such services.

The RFDS works to overcome the barrier to health outcomes that exist because of distance across this vast land. In the past, we did this only through aircraft, but times are changing. In the future, you will see us more and more interested in the way broadband can help us overcome these barriers.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service is principal sponsor for the 14th National Rural Health Conference


Royal Flying Doctor Service

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