The Future is Now – Telehealth at Princess Alexandra Hospital

Princess Alexandra Hospital

Professor Len Gray is an academic geriatrician working for the University of Queensland at the Princess Alexandra Hospital. “We are already doing a lot of work with small rural hospitals for example, where there are people living miles away needing advice and with that is a lot of follow up and medical consultation information that we can virtually take to the bedside where in the past this might have caused a very long ambulance trip.” The system eliminating this trip is Telehealth.

In addition to developing the Telehealth programme, the professor also directs two research centres: The Centre for Research in Geriatric Medicine and The Centre for Online Health. “Princess Alexandra Hospital has a variety of special areas of disciplines; research in geriatrics and now the Telehealth programme as well which is not the biggest research programme here but we are certainly among the bigger ones in this hospital.” The professor’s appointment is a joint arrangement between the university and the hospital. “So both my appointments at the University of Queensland and here at Princess Alexandra Hospital then facilitate a partnership centered around research, teaching and clinical care,” says Professor Gray. “We aspire to do those three things and, of course, to do them well.”

“What has happened in the last year or so is that Princess Alexandra Hospital and The University of Queensland have formed a partnership to develop Telehealth at Princess Alexandra Hospital. The most important ingredient being to establish a Telehealth Centre, which is a truly wonderful facility based in the centre of the main building at the hospital.” The Telehealth programme began with Professor Gray’s Geriatric Telehealth programme at the Princess Alexandra Hospital and has now expanded to offer more services and to all ages. “With the instigation of the Telehealth Centre, quite a few of the other departments are now starting to develop and add Telehealth dimensions to their services. So we are really at a stage of recruiting a whole range of specialty services to get into Telehealth. And just to add a side note that it does take some time and hard work to get into doing Telehealth, it’s not something you can just jump into.”

Prior to the advent of Telehealth, there have been some telephone health services where, if you have a health query, you would dial a number and a consultant would ask questions and take some personal information to forward to a registered nurse. The nurse would then call you back and give advice over the phone. The main component of the system being developed by Professor Gray is about video consultation. This might involve communication from hospital to hospital or clinic to clinic and in some cases, between a hospital or clinic and a patient at home. But, as Professor Gray points out, “There are also so many other aspects to it. For example, someone could send in a picture of a rash and get a dermatologist to look at it and they could then make a visual diagnosis and suggest treatment for the condition without even seeing the patient directly. This technology will of course assist those that are disabled and have trouble commuting and also those in remote locations so they can have, for example, this rash viewed by a doctor. These are the people this system is designed for. Ultimately for any citizen, this becomes a way of improving convenience and access.”

“Of course there are other sources of getting information to and from the patient, and that is through messaging or sharing information systems to get advice which is part of what we call telehealth.” For the system to work, the technological elements are only one point of consideration. The human component in telehealth remains vital and medical professionals are still needed to ensure patient care. “The other part of it is kind of measuring and monitoring things for people at home and checking their blood glucose levels and whether or not we can do that without them coming to a laboratory and can we transmit the test results to the specialists, doctor or nurse and so forth. It’s one thing to have the technology but who is going to respond and help you with that information?”

Telehealth provides peace of mind whenever answers are needed. Patients want to speak to a real live person instead of waiting for a response from a blog or thread on a computer and Gray points out that online “doctors” may be people with no health training at all and could get their answers awfully wrong. “What you do on the phone at the moment is already turning into a video experience. Increasingly these systems are getting more and more intelligent. As people start to have better video capabilities at home or better bandwidth, you will see more and more professionals who are already doing telephone consultations from home, start to do video consults as well, where they can actually see how well you look or unwell you look and that is just a slightly richer experience.”

Part of the Telehealth plan involves six studios in remote centers which would be the akin to a doctors consulting room combined with elements of a television studio. “So typically the people running the telehealth centre will see patients one after the other in a comfortable environment and have total access to computer records, lab results or information they might need. The first consult might be in Northwestern Queensland and the next in the south and each have co-ordinators at each clinic studio booking people one after the other. Patients may still have to travel to a video location near them to do the consult but the overall experience is still significantly more efficient than previous participation.” This centre will provide a tremendous benefit to regional health services.

“This means that more people will be able to look after themselves a little better as they can stay in facilities closer to home, and they can get the best possible care but without the inconvenience or disruption of travel. These opportunities also force you to have electronics records instead of paper files, which is great for the environment and for peace of mind. These aspects will lower costs in the medical industry and will improve the quality of healthcare as well. This is where telehealth is taking you.” In closing, Professor Gray maintains, “Our challenge or mission for our centre here at Princess Alexandra Hospital is to make our expertise available across the country and beyond.”

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January 18, 2018, 8:28 AM AEDT

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