The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has called for "urgent" government action to ensure Australians living in rural, regional, and remote areas have access to affordable and reliable high-speed broadband and the health care services it can enable.
Subpar internet connectivity and an absence of policies around equitable and affordable access to telecommunications are significant barriers for remote Australians seeking healthcare, the AMA argues in its Better Access to High Speed Broadband for Rural and Remote Health Care report [PDF].
Released earlier this week, the report acknowledges that Australians living in remote and regional areas are already disadvantaged by their distance from healthcare services compared to their metropolitan counterparts.
"[Regional and rural communities] have more difficulty accessing health services close to home, are more likely to put off visiting their GP due to distance and cost, and have higher rates of potentially preventable hospitalisations," AMA vice president Dr Tony Bartone said.
However, improvements in technology means distance should no longer be a barrier, the AMA said. There are a range of inexpensive and free web-based video conferencing solutions that can be used for consultations with healthcare practitioners. Broadband and 4G internet is widely available in metropolitan cities and some parts have access to the National Broadband Network (NBN).
There are also a growing number of telehealth solutions becoming available such as HCF-backed GP2U and Data61's Coviu designed specifically for interactions between healthcare practitioners and patients.
"However, many regional and remote areas have very poor internet connections, with relatively small download allowances, and at a much higher cost and slower speed than the services available in our cities," Bartone notes. "Many rural doctors told us of the problems they encounter with slow and unreliable internet access, not only for conducting day-to-day business, but also for caring for patients via eHealth and telemedicine."
"As mainstream health care provision becomes increasingly technology-based, and requires larger amounts of data and faster broadband services, there is a real risk that regional, rural, and remote areas of Australia will be left further and further behind.
In New Zealand, it has been estimated the benefits from broadband-enabled health care could reach about NZ$6 billion over a period of 20 years from reduced hospital, travel, and drug costs, and improvements in health care.
A 2016 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare indicates that total expenditure on health -- recurrent and capital expenditure combined -- has grown each year from AU$95 billion in 2003-04 to an estimated AU$155 billion in 2013-14.
At the current rate, it's been predicted that healthcare costs in Australia will consume more than 100 percent of the entire revenue collected by the states by 2046, according to the One in Four Lives: The Future of Telehealth in Australia report [PDF].
"At a time when the health budget is under pressure, it makes sense to invest in infrastructure that will not only improve healthcare, but also save money," Bartone said.
AMA is advising the government to adopt the recommendations provided in the 2015 Regional Telecommunications Review by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. These include the development of a new Consumer Communication Standard for voice and data and the launch of a Consumer Communication Fund to invest in infrastructure and services in regional Australia.
The NBN has previously come under fire for not providing equal access to telco services for regional and remotes areas due to the high cost of satellite services, the low data allowances provided under these services, and the low speeds inherent in satellite and fixed-wireless broadband networks.
NBN launched the first of its two AU$620 million Ka-band satellites, named Sky Muster, in October 2015, with commercial services becoming available in April 2016 to provide broadband via the projection of 101 spot beams for those not living within the fibre, hybrid fibre-coaxial, and fixed-wireless NBN network footprint.