The COVID-19 pandemic during 2020 and 2021 had a major impact on how health services were delivered, particularly in states such as Victoria where prolonged periods of lockdown saw health professionals having to find creative means of service delivery. This also impacted allied health and nursing student placements. As Head of the Rural Department of Allied Health, I was involved in sourcing placements so that our final-year allied health students could graduate on time. Many health services had suspended student placements or were not able to provide them at all. Therefore, we needed to source new placements or enable our students to do their placements differently.
Often during a crisis, new opportunities and innovations present themselves. Interestingly we saw the private sector, particularly those providing services to NDIS participants, rapidly pivot to deliver services via telehealth. Community-based health services also started using technology in creative ways, such as using telehealth to monitor those with chronic diseases, conducting assessments for home modifications via video and providing real-time rehabilitation appointments using tablets and smartphones. From an educator’s perspective, the worry was that our students were not prepared for this form of service delivery and it was literally experiential learning on the go.
To address the issue of using telehealth on placement, in 2020 a multidisciplinary team of La Trobe University academics developed a module on the basics of telehealth, so that students could upskill and better prepare themselves for placement. Given the lasting impact of COVID-19, particularly from the frequent and prolonged lockdowns in Victoria, as well as the success of telehealth, we felt it was not just a temporary service delivery modality. With state government funding of $1.6 million as part of the Victorian Higher Education State Investment Fund (VHESIF) and La Trobe University funding of $2.6 million, we are undertaking a project to provide telehealth education to students and clinicians, in partnership with Bendigo Health and Northern Health.
Planning and building works are underway for simulation learning spaces for a range of different telehealth services. One type of space will be for telehealth involving counselling and intensive individual sessions for disciplines such as psychology, occupational therapy, midwifery, nursing and speech pathology. A larger space with more cameras will enable assessment and rehabilitation sessions to occur for disciplines such as physiotherapy, exercise physiology and art therapy. As part of the project, we have also mapped the telehealth content of our existing allied health and nursing curricula. Some disciplines are more advanced and are already using telehealth for students supervised on placement as part of internal clinics. However, facilities could be better. We are putting together a community of practice of academics to develop teaching resources and curricula content, throughout all years of our programs, so that students will be better prepared to undertake telehealth as part of their placements and utilise it to its full potential, ensuring that their practice is professional, ethical and safe.
We also have funding for industry PhD scholarships to conduct research with our partner health services, to investigate student and clinician learning and use of telehealth. This is particularly exciting for the Rural Health School, where the use of telehealth can increase access to services for rural people, increase the uptake and sustained use of services such as cardiac rehabilitation and chronic disease management, and reduce the burden on families and carers to travel to receive services.