Telehealth pilots showcase the NBN

The government has put up another $20 million for trials of telehealth in the home, but only if they tie in with the National Broadband Network rollout.

Above: The Minister for Health, Tanya Plibersek.

By Stephen Easton

Six months after the introduction of new Medicare rebates and incentive payments to encourage the take-up of video consultations in health and aged care, the government now wants to stimulate the use of in-home telehealth technology – but only where it shows off the value of the National Broadband Network.

Over the weekend, a joint ministerial statement announced a further $20.6 million to fund pilot projects, in areas where the NBN has already been rolled out, which demonstrate how in-home technology can improve aged care, palliative care and cancer care.

Each two-year project will receive roughly $1 million to $3 million, starting from 1 July, to provide in-home telehealth services such as monitoring vital signs remotely, medical consultations and help with general healthy living.

According to the announcement, last July’s introduction of Medicare rebates and incentive payments for telehealth has seen more than 7,000 video consultation services provided by over 1,200 clinicians around Australia, mostly to rural and remote areas.

But while the incentive payments encourage residential aged care providers and doctors to buy video consultation equipment, no new Medicare rebates were introduced for consultations between GPs and nursing home residents, depsite longstanding difficulties in getting GPs to attend aged care faciltiies. 

Above: Minister for Mental Health, Ageing and Social Inclusion, Mark Butler.

For his part in Sunday’s joint ministerial annoucement, Minister for Mental Health, Ageing and Social Inclusion Mark Butler said it was older Australians who stood to gain the most from in-home telehealth technologies.

“As we age, health issues tend to be more prevalent and we’re much more likely to require care and support from a wider range of health professionals,” Mr Butler said. 

“Expanding telehealth services to older Australians still living in their own homes will help health professionals identify potential health problems earlier, reduce the need for older Australians to travel to receive treatment and increase access to healthcare services and specialists.”

Health Minister Tanya Plibersek said the program brought together two of the government’s key priorities – the NBN, and providing patients with healthcare “when they need it and where they need it”.

“[… Projects] will include having health indicators monitored remotely – for instance, your doctor being able to take your blood pressure online while you are at home – or receiving medical consultations and healthy living support in the home.”

Aged Care Association Australia (ACAA) chief executive Rod Young welcomed the announcement and expressed his support for the NBN, which he said would enable new models of care that rely on reliable, high-speed broadband.

“Australians have clearly indicated for many years that they wish to remain independent, in their own homes preferably for all of their lives,” Mr Young said in a statement.

“This desire, if it is to be achieved with an ageing population, declining workforce and diminishing number of voluntary carers, can only be achieved if we support people in their own home with care diagnostics, remote monitoring and telehealth technologies which will support and sustain their independence.

“To provide this level of integrated care and support in seniors own homes, it is essential that fast business grade broadband is accessible and ubiquitous.

“[The] NBN will have the capacity to provide the speed and bandwidth that future service delivery models of care will demand if the wishes of older Australians to stay in their homes and remain independent are to be realised.”

Suri Ramanathan, chair of the Aged Care Industry IT Council (ACIITC) and Rob Hankins, CEO of Aged and Community Services Australia, also welcomed the announcement this week.

Mr Hankins said aged and community care providers were already using various kinds of technology to improve services, but that more could be done “provided the internet has the speed and the capacity”.

Palliative Care Australia (PCA) has applauded the project too, particularly for its specific focus on older people, cancer patients and those who need palliative care.

“It is great to see such an innovative approach to providing healthcare for these vulnerable people,” said the CEO of PCA, Dr Yvonne Luxford. 

“The fact that the pilot has chosen to focus on these groups is evidence of the government’s recognition that our health system is not adequately addressing the needs of older Australians and those requiring palliative care, and that we need to look at new ways of delivering health services.”

Click here for the draft program guidelines for the telehealth pilot program; comments and submissions will be accepted up until 6 February. Final guidelines will be released and applications will be open by March, closing in April.

Tags: broadband, community-care, independence, nbn, telehealth,

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