A boy who accidentally slashed his throat when he rode his motorbike into a fence, a burns victim, and an elderly Indigenous woman who wanted to die on country – all are among rural patients successfully treated by telehealth, a conference has heard.

The trio were seen by specialists through the WA Country Health Service Command Centre, which provides telehealth via video conferencing to help frontline doctors treat patients at rural hospitals.  

The centre is part of the world’s biggest rural service in geographical terms, covering more than 2.5 million square kilometres from Kalumburu in the Kimberley to Albany in the south.

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Speaking at the National Rural Health Conference in Brisbane, the command centre’s managing director, Justin Yeung, said it aims to provide “care closer to home” for people in rural and remote areas across the vast state.

“We see the whole gamut,” Dr Yeung told the conference, which is focusing on collaboration and innovation in rural health.

The centre runs emergency care, inpatient treatment to reduce the number of patients who need to be transferred to bigger hospitals, maternity care, psychiatry and palliative care.

Dr Yeung said telehealth is not a replacement for face-to-face care, but supplements traditional treatment.

“There is always a need for a cohort of patients to be examined, to look them in the eye, feel their skin, examine them, and perform investigations.”

At the onset of COVID-19, the centre got an intensive care service up and running in 21 days, Dr Yeung said.

“There was a worldwide shortage of ventilators, there was a fear of intensive cares being overwhelmed, a fear that the transport network would collapse, a fear Aboriginal communities will be wiped out. There was no vaccine. 

“So what did we do? We increased our physical infrastructure, we pushed out iPads, everywhere. 

“There was no service interruption.”

As the pandemic continues, the centre backs up an exhausted health workforce, which could not recruit travelling locum doctors when the state borders were closed for two years.

“We’re chasing the sun, we’re managing fatigue by having our workforce, our night shifts done offshore,” Dr Yeung said.

“We’re protecting the WA workforce.”

The conference is due to hear from speakers on workforce retention, healthcare in Indigenous communities, and the health effects of climate change over the next two days.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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