Australian GPs have delivered a lukewarm assessment of the NBN as an enabler of e-health services in regional, rural and remote Australia, just days after the network builder publicly talked up its credentials in the space.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) unveiled a position statement Tuesday calling on the government to take “urgent action” on bush broadband to ensure regional Australia could access “the same standard of healthcare … as those living in the major cities”.
It warned that without access to telemedicine and e-health services, those in regional, rural and remote Australia “could fall even further behind” in terms of access to quality health services.
“By far the top priority for rural GPs - and the second top priority for doctors in general in rural and regional Australia - is much higher speed broadband for their medical practices,” AMA vice president Dr Tony Bartone told iTnews.
“In 2016 that sounds like an unbelievable concern. For city doctors, it’s something you take for granted.”
The AMA’s position statement outlines concerns, particularly from rural GPs, about poor internet service in many areas, and NBN Co’s inability so far to fill the gaps.
“Many areas are not getting the best from the NBN,” one GP said.
“The NBN has been deficient in providing comprehensive coverage even in areas that are under 25km from a major regional centre i.e. Orange and Dubbo,” said another.
The AMA is pushing for several actions from the network builder. Most importantly, it wants to see NBN Co effectively overbuild areas covered by its Sky Muster satellite service by pushing fibre and fixed wireless deeper into rural Australia.
For rural and remote areas left on NBN satellite, the AMA wants “measures to prioritise or optimise the broadband capacity available by satellite for hospitals and medical practices, such as exempting or allocating higher data allowance quotas, or providing a separate data allowance”.
“At the moment the [satellite] allowances are quite ridiculously small and costly,” Dr Bartone said.
“When it comes to telehealth, the quality of the infrastructure determines a number of the outcomes.
“If you look at remote hospitals where radiology is being provided, they may not have an on-call radiologist to read the films. These films have to be transmitted to a central facility, and each film is several hundred MBs of data or more.
“Just from the volume of patients and number of tests performed, even the clinical information being ferried around is enormous. We need to give priority and extra dispensation to hospitals and practices in areas where access is an issue.”
Dr Bartone said that when it came to delivering better health outcomes in regional, rural and remote Australia, “a really robust, reliable and fast broadband service is a non-negotiable requirement”.
The timing of the AMA’s incursion into the broadband debate – and the comments from GPs on the relative success of using NBN to underpin e-health services – is embarassing for NBN Co, which only last week proclaimed it was “linking regional Australia to e-health”.
After commissioning its own research, NBN Co claimed its network was “bridging the digital divide between country and city” when it came to health services delivery.
It cited an example of a Western Australian resident using NBN for telehealth appointments, and a Tasmanian “consultant physician” who said that “increasingly, patients in remote locations are using the NBN or will soon be able to use it.”