High-tech health helps hundreds of regional South Aussies

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By Lana Guineay

A team of Adelaide-based physiotherapists are treating hundreds of regional South Australians – without ever meeting in real life.

Matthew Beard, Dr Saravana Kumar, and Joseph Orlando are among the team using the latest in teleconference technology, known as Telehealth, to help improve the spinal health of rural and regional patients.

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Matthew and Joseph are based at the Spinal Assessment Clinic (SAC), launched in 2013 by the Royal Adelaide Hospital, and have partnered with Dr Kumar fromUniversity of South Australia, to increase access to specialist spinal services.

Low back pain affects 1 in 4 Australians at some point in their lives, and comes with “significant personal and financial costs”, says Dr Kumar.

Back pain costs the healthcare system $4.8 billion each year, affecting four million people. For those based in the regions, the issues can be even more debilitating.

Bringing together clinicians, patients and researchers, the program uses innovative technology to help to address this major national health issue, and provide equitable access to care.

Dr Saravana Kumar, Joseph Orlando and Matthew Beard

Dr Saravana Kumar, Joseph Orlando and Matthew Beard

“Rural and regional South Australians are required to travel long distances to Adelaide for specialist consultation, which can be daunting and potentially make their condition worse,” says Dr Kumar.

“Currently there is limited or no access to specialist spinal consultations in country areas. Telehealth addresses this so that just like their urban counterparts, people in the country too can have equitable access to health care.”

The SA Digital Telehealth Network is ideally suited to helping these patients by providing an alternative to face-to-face consultations, and reduces waitlists.

The impact has been “vast” Dr Kumar says.

“Patients have been exceptionally positive about this service.

“They love it because they can remain in their communities and avoid unnecessary, time consuming and costly travel. In the past, patients had to come into the city for their consultation, which can be inconvenient, disrupt time from work and family, as well as aggravate lower back pain. Telehealth helps to avoid this.”

The Telehealth technology allows regional patients to access treatment remotely

The Telehealth technology allows regional patients to access treatment remotely

The network connects 220 video conferencing units across the state, allowing for encrypted, critical patient information to be easily shared.

Clinicians from the Royal Adelaide Hospital and community health centres coordinate the treatment, with patients arriving at their local community centre for their appointment where the SA Digital Telehealth Network links them up with a physiotherapist at the RAH.

Much like Skype, the video link allows the clinician to perform a patient assessment and interview, interpret and explain any spinal imaging such as x-rays, before reaching a diagnosis and management plan.

The vast majority of regional patients stay within their local community, supported by their local GP.

Prior to Telehealth, Dr Kumar says an outreach service was in place, but was less efficient and more expensive to maintain.

Last year the Telehealth network was used over 7,000 times to help treat a range of health conditions, including chronic pain and burns management.

Dr Kumar says the team will continue to promote the service across the state,  build local knowledge through training and support, and continue to work with University of South Australia to evaluate and improve the service.

“As South Australians, we all deserve equitable access to quality and safe health care,” he says.

“This model of health care is one of a kind in South Australia, and its success is due to a collaborative approach.”

For more information on the SA Digital Telehealth program, including making bookings, visit the SAC site. 

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