Increasingly connected digital health services across rural and remote Australia

  • Dr talking to patient on laptop

The Australian Government continues to invest in digital health initiatives that will provide greater access to healthcare services for all Australians, and particularly people in rural and regional Australia who find accessing treatment difficult due to distance or travelling time.

Combined with new virtual models of care such as telehealth, electronic prescriptions help improve accessibility of health care nationwide. The viability of telehealth consulting has been constrained previously by the limitations of a paper prescription as the only legal form by which medicines could be supplied.

Telehealth has delivered significant benefits to rural and remote communities, enabling specialist consultations without the need to travel huge distances. Di Thornton, Director of Nursing at Pinnaroo Soldiers' Memorial Hospital, says ‘telehealth is a life-saving technology, because it makes emergency specialist consultations possible’.

Over the past year, the Australian Digital Health Agency has accelerated consumer access to its COVID-19 vaccination and pathology result information in My Health Record. This work has provided real-time access to an individual's vaccination status and has enabled safe, secure and quick access to critical health information for all Australians, including people living in rural and remote communities.

Beyond COVID-19, Australians living in rural, regional, and remote communities can have a telehealth consult with a doctor – such as a metropolitan-based specialist – and receive their prescription electronically. More than 22 million electronic prescriptions have been generated since May 2020, providing a safer, faster and more efficient supply of prescriptions to Australians.

Building on the success of electronic prescribing, the Department of Health is now investigating how to give consumers the option to have digital referrals, requests and results for diagnostic imaging as an alternative to current paper and hard-copy image processes. Embracing technology to achieve efficiencies for diagnostic providers can help to ensure the ongoing viability of these services across rural and remote Australia.

The Government is developing a Digital Health Blueprint. It will provide clear leadership and direction for the digital health sector and supports the Government’s broader digital transformation agenda. The focus of the Blueprint will be delivering digital services and tools that work alongside healthcare providers to strengthen care coordination, while increasing services available to Australians living outside our cities. It is anticipated the Blueprint will be completed by the end of 2021.

Additional ‘Communities of Excellence’ initiatives

In 2019 – through a collaboration between governments, peak healthcare organisations and local healthcare providers – the Australian Digital Health Agency launched the Communities of Excellence program to help guide the uptake of digital health services in regional and remote communities.

The rural and mining communities of Emerald in central Queensland and Port Hedland in the Pilbara region of Western Australia were the first chosen for accelerated connection to digital health services such as My Health Record, telehealth and secure messaging systems for clinical information exchange and electronic prescriptions.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service is using My Health Record to access patient information including discharge summaries, follow-up specialist appointments, medication changes, and pathology and radiology performed elsewhere when providing both emergency and ongoing treatment.

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