The reported benefits of telehealth for rural AustraliansJennifer J. Moffatt A B and Diann S. Eley A
A The University of Queensland, School of Medicine, Rural Clinical School, Locked Bag 9009, Toowoomba DC, QLD 4350, Australia. Email: email@example.com
B Corresponding author. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Australian Health Review 34(3) 276-281 http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/AH09794
Submitted: 14 June 2009 Accepted: 4 November 2009 Published: 25 August 2010
Objective. A literature review was conducted to identify the reported benefits attributed to telehealth for people living and professionals working in rural and remote areas of Australia.
Data sources. Scopus and relevant journals and websites were searched using the terms: telemedicine, telehealth, telepsychiatry, teledermatology, teleradiology, Australia, and each state and territory. Publications since 1998 were included.
Study selection. The initial search resulted in 176 articles, which was reduced to 143 when research reporting on Australian rural, regional or remote populations was selected.
Data synthesis. A narrative review was conducted using an existing ‘benefits’ framework. Patients are reported to have benefited from: lower costs and reduced inconvenience while accessing specialist health services; improved access to services and improved quality of clinical services. Health professionals are reported to have benefited from: access to continuing education and professional development; provision of enhanced local services; experiential learning, networking and collaboration.
Discussion. Rural Australians have reportedly benefited from telehealth. The reported improved access and quality of clinical care available to rural Australians through telemedicine and telehealth may contribute to decreasing the urban–rural health disparities. The reported professional development opportunities and support from specialists through the use of telehealth may contribute to improved rural medical workforce recruitment and retention.
What is known about the topic? An extensive international literature has reported on the efficacy of telehealth, and to a lesser extent the clinical outcomes and cost-effectiveness of telemedicine. Systematic reviews conclude that the quality of the studies preclude definitive conclusions being drawn about clinical and cost-effectiveness, although there is some evidence of effective clinical outcomes and the potential for cost-benefits. Little attention has been paid to the benefits reported for people who live in rural and remote Australia, despite this being a rationale for the use of telehealth in rural and remote locations.
What does this paper add? Patients in rural and remote locations in Australia are reported to benefit from telehealth by increased access to health services and up-skilled health professionals. Health professionals are reported to benefit from telehealth by up-skilling from increased contact with specialists and increased access to professional development. The review findings suggest that one strategy, the increased use of telehealth, has the potential to reduce the inequitable access to health services and the poorer health status that many rural Australians experience, and contribute to addressing the on-going problem of the recruitment and retention of the rural health workforce.
What are the implications for practitioners? The use of telehealth appears to be a path to up-skilling for rural and remote practitioners.