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How do they do IT? eHealth's bleeding edge part 2

The NBN has being touted as a cure-all for eHealth but hospitals, medical schools & medical pros show eHealth is fighting fit

Part two of Computerworld Australia's look at how IT underpins the health sector.

Telehealth

With an ageing population and a shortage of nurses placing a strain on the healthcare system, RDNS' Ironside points to video conferencing technology as an area of increasing activity.

The not-for-profit healthcare provider has embedded video conferencing across its business in an effort to help nursing staff treat as many people as possible.

"The primary focus for us in IT here at RDNS is around delivering a better quality of care to our clients through using technology and we do this by driving innovation and using the technology available," Ironside says."

"It's about the ongoing embedding of technology and making sure that we can get it out there to as many staff members as we can, and the delivery of nursing services into homes via our video conferencing system."

While RDNS is using video conferencing and in-home services like blood pressure monitors and door sensors for dementia patients, Ironside sees a major role for the NBN as the linkage the sector has been waiting for.

"It's the ongoing embedding in technology and making sure that we can get it out there to as many staff members as we can, and the delivery of nursing services into homes via our video conferencing systems," he says. "I really think the NBN is going to be the enabler for what we've been needing for a while and it's really important to some of the technology that we've been trialing.

"We'll see a pretty dramatic uptake like interactive video and in home services that we've been using for a while -- things like tracking the physical condition of patients, having door sensors for dementia patients and health indicators like blood pressure and weight being able to be monitored within the home without the patient knowing will be even easier to access and use once the NBN is rolled out."

St Vincent's and Mater Hospitals' Roffe says a recent implementation of the Vidyo desktop video conferencing system at his hospitals shows promise not just for collaboration between healthcare professionals but for remote doctor-to-patient consultations.

"It's got huge potential and the big issue for this is, if a doctors sitting in his rooms and wants to do a video consult with a patient in Dubbo, he doesn't have to drag the patient in on a plane; he can do a certain amount of the initial consultation via videoconferencing," he says.

"I think it'll be reducing the need for patients to physically come to Sydney for the initial conversation. At the end of the day there are certain things it can't do; sometimes you really do need to have the patient in front of you and prod and poke them and all of that stuff.

"A lot of the initial conversation, and especially when it's in the more conversational stages, can be done using the videoconferencing."

University of Queensland senior lecturer in e-learning, Dr David Emmett, cites telehealth facilitated by high-speed broadband as an enabler in the health sector, allowing the next generation of healthcare professionals to gain access to learning resources from anywhere in the world.

"One of the things the NBN should be able to bring is the concept of multiple places where you can video conference with people," he says.

"On Skype at the moment it's one-on-one [video conversations], but if you think about the professional version, where you can have one-on-10, I can imagine a time when you could have students all over the country all come online and use Skype together." Emmett hopes medical students will have a seamless transition between study and work, with the same forms of technology set to be included in both university courses and hospitals.

"What we're moving towards is developing programs that will cover students all the way from their course based programs with the university right through to the hospital program," he says.

Innovation

Southern Health has also embraced location-based technology recently deploying a real-time location system (RTLS) in both its emergency and mental health departments which lets staff track assets, people and resources, pinpointing where they are, how long they've been there and where and when they went.

"Knowledge is power and being able to follow that sort of information gives us the ability to be more efficient," Ferguson says of the system. "The more efficient you are the greater your patient throughput and you can treat patients quicker.

"It's a very exciting system for us -- one that I think a lot of hospitals have fantasised about -- but to actually deploy a robust enterprise solution is a great leap forward for us."

At St Vincent's and Mater Hospitals, Roffe too has been working with location and identification technology, installing radio frequency identification tags (RFID) on crucial biomedical devices in order to locate them at any time, to prevent them disappearing into theatre with patients and being untraceable. The hospital has also started to implement wireless vital signs monitors, which will feed blood pressure and pulse rate data up to its clinical system.

Looking to the future, Roffe says that as the price of tablet PCs comes done its likely that 'patient entertainment devices' will also proliferate inside hospital wards. Taking a leaf from the airline industry, these devices will offer free-to-air TV, on-demand content, a telephone, movies and games. In addition the devices will enable patients to call for nursing aid directly through the device as well as double up as platform for running medical applications.

"The big advantage is that when a doctor comes into the room some units allow the doctor to access clinical application on the screen," he says. "They can see x-rays and explain to the patient at the time what the image shows. They can review pathology results or ask the patient to view educational material ... all great things."


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