Technology enables health care to reach one of the most remote communities in the world

Friday, 23 July, 2021

Technology enables health care to reach one of the most remote communities in the world

When border closures meant that no doctors or allied health outreach professionals could reach the remote community of Tjuntjuntjara for more than 10 months, digital health provided an answer.

The Aboriginal community of Tjuntjuntjara in Western Australia is one of the most remote communities in the world, yet telehealth and the use of My Health Record have transformed healthcare delivery to the region.

Tjuntjuntjara is 650 km north-east of Kalgoorlie in the Great Victoria Desert. The 160 people living there speak a southern variety of the Pitjantjatjara language and identify as belonging to a group of people known as Pilanguṟu, meaning ‘from the spinifex plains’. For the last 10 years, the Aboriginal community-controlled Spinifex Health Service in Tjuntjuntjara has been serviced by a fly-in/fly-out GP and other health professionals through the Adelaide-based Kakarrara Wilurrara Health Alliance (KWHA).

With the advent of COVID-19 and the closure of the Western Australian border to the KWHA planes and health professionals from South Australia, doctors and allied health outreach professionals were unable to go to Tjuntjuntjara for more than 10 months from March 2020 to January 2021.

Digital health provided an answer. Using telehealth, the clinic was able to continue receiving care for chronic conditions, preventive activities and mental health issues.

Dr Jill Benson AM, Medical Director at Spinifex Health Service and GP, has been going to Tjuntjuntjara for more than a decade and is familiar with many of the patients there.

“In many cases, and despite the reduced face-to-face encounters with visiting medical specialists, the increased use of telehealth sessions improved care,” she said.

“This meant better continuity of care, the ability to have timely review and follow-up, the ability to deal with issues as they occurred and not just once a month, and specialist referrals as needed and not just when they were scheduled to come out. The use of technology has been a real benefit in telehealth.”

Dr Jill Benson delivers telehealth to Tjuntjuntjara from her houseboat on the Murray River.

Dr Benson said the majority of the patients in Tjuntjuntjara have all of their medications, investigations, discharge summaries and health summaries from Spinifex Health Service in My Health Record.

“This means that when they travel to other communities, all of this is instantly accessible. It also means that if a patient has a recall set up in another community then the health professionals there can alert the Spinifex staff if they can see the person has recently been in Tjuntjuntjara. This has been an invaluable resource to maintain continuity of care.”

Australian Digital Health Agency CEO Amanda Cattermole said, “The Agency works with the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and its state and territory affiliates to promote and embed digital health in Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHSs).

“ACCHSs deliver holistic and culturally appropriate health services to their communities, and the work that they undertake is fundamental to closing the gap in health outcomes. Digital health is a key enabler for improving access to services and delivering improved health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, particularly those living in remote communities.”

Head of Regional and Remote Health and Education at NBN Co Dr Jen Beer, who is a proud Darlot woman from the Western Desert region of Western Australia, shared that connectivity and the role it plays in enabling digital health has never been more important, particularly for Indigenous Australians.

“We are hearing the many benefits that health practitioners, clinics, as well as patients are experiencing in regional and remote communities across Australia where connectivity has improved their timely access to quality healthcare services. Examples of this include in East Arnhem Land where Wi-Fi calling access, through nbn Sky Muster Plus, enables medical staff to coordinate emergency retrievals at any time of the day or week through to telehealth services, allowing greater continuity of care with staff who are familiar with their patients,” Dr Beer said.

Steve Renouf — Agency Consumer Advocate, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Champion and Co-Chair of the Reconciliation Working Group and National Medicines Safety Program — said Aboriginal people and communities across the country were embracing technology to take control of their health.

“It’s fantastic to see yet another example of an Aboriginal health service leading the way in providing digital health benefits to their patients,” he said. “Aboriginal health services are at the forefront of a revolution in health care that uses technology to transform and improve people’s lives.”

Top image caption: Tjuntjuntjara from the air.

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