24 March 2023

Regional GPs welcome virtual health hubs aimed at conveniently connecting patients to specialists

| Gail Eastaway
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Cooma's Bombala Street Surgery

Bombala Street Surgery, Cooma. Photo: Gail Eastaway.

Plans by the State Government to establish virtual consultation spaces in every Multipurpose Service (MPS) across NSW have been welcomed by GPs in Cooma.

The recent announcement was made by Deputy Premier and Minister for Regional NSW Paul Toole.

He said the $7 million in funding would allow patients to connect with specialists in major regional or metropolitan centres from their local health hub and with the necessary local support.

Minister for Regional Health Bronnie Taylor said setting up virtual consultation spaces in every MPS meant support was available for patients, both to assist with navigating the technology and to help them plan treatments.

“This is about providing choice to our rural and regional patients who may not want to travel outside their community and don’t have access to the necessary technology at home or feel at ease using Telehealth on their own,” Mrs Taylor said.

In Cooma, Bombala Street Surgery’s Dr Hamish Steiner said: “It’s a good policy for rural areas. Part of the problem is finding specialists to connect to at the other end but it’s a step in the right direction.

“For smaller towns like Bombala and Delegate, it will hopefully mean that patients won’t have to travel to Bega, Cooma and Canberra as much. For oncology patients getting follow-up and patients who need reviewing, it will be very helpful.

“I just hope the funding includes some extra staff to help things run. Virtual spaces still need staff to help them run.”

Dr Steiner also operates the Bombala Medical Clinic, so knows firsthand the issues rural residents face in receiving specialist services.

Mr Toole said: “You shouldn’t have to drive hundreds of kilometres for a follow-up specialist appointment if you can have it face-to-face but via video in your local community.

“That’s why we’ll create a devoted space in every one of our 63 MPSs in regional communities across the state with the technology for outpatients to connect with.”

Mrs Taylor said the hubs would help smaller health facilities access enhanced medical coverage and support staff through remote monitoring, specialist advice where needed, 24/7 general practitioner care, and better access to patient records.

“Our rural virtual hubs will be based in regional locations and staffed with regionally based clinicians who will bring with them a wealth of knowledge,” Mrs Taylor said.

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A re-elected NSW Liberal and Nationals Government would also start a trial of networked rural virtual hubs, building on the Government’s commitment to better connect care across the bush.

“From our lifesaving Telestroke Service, the Virtual Intensive Care Service in Broken Hill and our Virtual Chemotherapy Service run out of Coonabarabran and Cobar, virtual care has been a game-changer in the regional health space,” Mrs Taylor said.

“There is no one quick-fix solution to Australia’s medical workforce shortage, but by building rural hubs with clinicians who live and breathe regional health care, we are adding another layer of support in our rural and regional communities.

“This is not about removing face-to-face care, but rather about making sure that no matter where you live, you will receive the best care in a timely manner.”

The Bureau of Health Information’s 2021 report into virtual care surveyed more than 20,300 people. Around nine in 10 rated their virtual care as ”good’’ or ”very good”. Patients in rural areas also tended to be more positive about their experiences of virtual care than their urban counterparts.

The Regional Health Inquiry also recommended virtual care technology be used to supplement face-to-face services and assist patients to effectively engage in virtual care.

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