Telehealth: A lifeline for healthcare

With the cost of healthcare soaring around the world, information and communication technology is being utilized as a much needed solution.

While industries such as food, telecommunications and motor vehicles are becoming cheaper and more efficient, the same cannot be said for healthcare. Australian healthcare prices have been rising, on average, more than 5% annually. This is close to double the pace of our overall economic growth.

The costs of healthcare in advanced economies such as Australia is rising so fast that the OECD predicts that it will be unaffordable by 2050 if there is no reform. Telehealth is an information and communication technology initiative which hopes to rectify this problem. It encompasses a broad range of solutions, including remote patient monitoring, and an SMS service from concerned patients to their GPs.

This type of technology will improve upon the existing healthcare procedures, while at the same time reducing their cost. The biggest improvement is that it provides patients the ability to receive care at the right time, even before they make the trip to see their GP.

In the Waiting Room

Denmark have been using telehealth since 2005. China is close to becoming the largest telehealth markets in the world. The Canadian government invested over US$2 billion into telehealth projects in the last year, while 42 US states have introduced 200 telehealth legislation. Despite all of this work in the telehealth market, almost no country has been able to reduce their costs of healthcare, or make it more efficient.

In Australia, we have been using telehealth on a relatively small scale for decades, with it enabling health care provisions to rural Australians, as well as a means of looking after the ageing population. Despite this, there have been concerns raised about the privacy of those who use the service, the adequacy of the broadband needed, and a lack of skills among healthcare professionals.

Despite these concerns, telehealth is becoming increasingly important, particularly when considering that in cities there is one doctor per 1000 people, and in countries this raises to one per 3000. As well as this, more than half of healthcare services can be delivered without a medical professional and patient being in the same room. Telehealth has the potential to detect illnesses and diseases before they become a health risk and financial burden.

A Funding Problem

In 2011, the Australian Government made significant moves towards telehealth when they offered Medicare rebates for online consultations, as well as a $6000 incentive for doctors. Since these incentives have been cutback, it has been found that many doctors don’t feel inclined to implement telemarketing without the extra payment. Dr. Mike Civil, a GP from Western Australia noted that while the patients loved online consultations, if he wasn’t getting reimbursed it was not worthwhile for him to continue.

In order to encourage the implementation of telehealth on a larger scale, more work needs to be done in order to provide all people with access to broadband, and also a way to reimburse those doctors who utilize it.