The era of virtual medicine is finally here

Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Samsung

The intersection of technology and medicine is creating a more efficient and convenient world.

For decades futurists have been predicting giant leaps forward in the quality and speed of healthcare delivery through advances in technology.

If you look around in 2015, through advances such as telehealth, body parts created with 3D printers, medical service delivery in remote areas, and the use of big data to diagnose illnesses or forecast future demand for services, the age of virtual medicine is decidedly upon us.

Why go to the trouble of making your way to a doctor’s surgery, and then spending an afternoon in a waiting room, when you could be working or recuperating in bed? Online services can have you talking direct to a GP via online video link in just a few clicks. And you haven’t even left home or the office.

The doctors can email a medical certificate, make a note on your file and prescribe medicine, all online. The connection between GP and patient is just the first step into the world of networked healthcare.

While access to GPs online is now a reality, the services are still small. Out of 140 million GP visits a year in Australia, only about 20,000 or so are virtual.

Only getting started

David Glance, director of the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Software Practice, says the virtual market will take time to develop as users adapt, and there is huge scope for more adoption and improvement.

“The promise of e-health has yet to live up to the hype as a panacea for our ageing, overweight and increasingly sickly population,” he writes in the Conversation.

However, he says it will definitely be part of the solution in delivering more efficient services.

According to David Hansen, CEO of the eHealth Research Centre at the CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, much of the healthcare sector has catching up to do.

“Healthcare may be the last sector where significant amounts of communication are still done via fax and regular post,” he says. “This is not to say that significant changes are not happening.”

Big data analytics

The federal government is creating digital medical records for all in Australia. This project, supported by state health departments, means there will be a mountain of data about the health needs of Australians.

“We’re going to see the big data analytics,” says Hansen. “An example where we’ve done some work is our patient admission prediction tool. This predicts, based on historical data, how many patients are going to turn up in the emergency department and how many will go on to need a bed.”

Hansen says data analytics will drive efficiency in the health system. “That’s based on the electronic medical records and the electronic administrative systems which we’re putting in at the moment,” he says.

Saving eyesight in remote areas

Ehealth is a cheap and effective way to bring benefits, taken for granted in cities where specialist care is readily available, to the bush. In a trial by the CSIRO, 1,200 people were screened for eye diseases in Western Australia and Queensland.

An image of an eye taken in the remote imaging project. Photo: CSIRO

Nurses used retinal cameras to capture high resolution images. These were uploaded by local health workers over the NBN satellite to medical specialists.

The project found 68 people at risk of going blind.

“Even though it was a trial, I think we had eight or nine people who could have potentially gone blind without that service,” Hansen says. “The nurses toward the end of that trail had become educated to what to look for so they were providing a triage service for ophthalmologists.”

Saving people from a second heart attack

Heart app. Image: CSIRO

When someone has a heart attack, they should, according to the National heart Foundation, be referred to a cardiac rehabilitation program. This means weekly visits to hospital for seven weeks.

“People who do finish cardiac rehab are about 50% less likely to have a second heart attack within five years,” Hansen says. “It’s something we want to encourage but at the moment less than 20% of people who have a heart attack finish a cardiac rehabilitation program.”

A smartphone app was created so people didn’t have to go back into the hospital each week.

“And we saw a huge increase in the number of people who actually finished,” he says. “The app also collects data, such as information about exercises completed, inputted by the patient, and stores it on the cloud. And there’s a mentor who speaks to the patient each week. “

For patients living in remote areas, and can’t make regular visits to hospital, the app can literally be a life saver.

A virtual GP

James Freeman lives in Hobart where he pioneered digital GP access with GP2U in 2011 as an add on to his general practice.

There were many hurdles, including how to get scripts to patients so they could access drugs. Now scripts get faxed to pharmacies where a patient then picks up what the doctor ordered. Drugs can also be mailed direct to the patient.

A consultation, with its obvious limitations including no physical examination, costs between $49 and $69. It’s a straight fee with no Medicare reimbursement.

James Freeman. Supplied

Freeman created the platform, essentially a booking system and a way to communicate with patients, with time-poor people in mind.

“GP2U manages all the logistics of referrals, bookings, reminders, waiting lists, prescriptions and payments,” says Freeman. “It is perfect for time-poor patients unable to access regular health services.”

His first patient was a young woman from Queensland who had driven 150km to a doctor’s appointment at which she was told she was too young to have depression.

Freeman got her to a psychiatrist and today she and her husband have a young daughter. “And that’s nice to be able to get the right care to people who simply wouldn’t have got it,” he says.

We’re starting to see some of the benefits that technology will bring to healthcare delivery. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring this further in the Smarter Health series.

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