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NBN launches Digital Diagnosis, releases telehealth report

Respondents to an NBN survey have said that access to telehealth would be convenient, save money and time, and provide more options for those living in regional areas.

The company responsible for rolling out the National Broadband Network (NBN) across Australia has released a research paper on e-health, spruiking the benefits of using high-speed broadband for monitoring health and conducting telehealth conferences with doctors.

NBN's guide to health in the home: How fast broadband is helping to connect us to anytime, anywhere healthcare [PDF] was commissioned by NBN and conducted by market research agency Colmar Brunton.

The report was released as part of NBN's new Digital Diagnosis program, which exists primarily to push broadband -- or, more specifically, the NBN -- as a health enabler.

"The rollout of fast broadband via the NBN network is allowing more people to harness everything from GP video-conferencing to fitness apps," the report says.

"As more people understand and gain access to telehealth services, research shows that almost two thirds (62 percent) of respondents would feel more equipped to make informed health decisions. A large percentage of people would feel safer knowing they can monitor their health from home (57 percent), and almost one in two feel they would be more efficient and productive.

"As Australians become more connected, they are becoming active participants in managing personal and family health. Telehealth tools and services are just a click away."

The paper had a sample size of 1,534 Australian adults, and was conducted in November last year, also finding that 50 percent of respondents use telehealth for its convenience; 34 percent use it for better managing their health; and 21 percent use it in place of going to a doctor when they are unable to get an appointment.

According to the report, pregnant women and new parents are also using telehealth to save the time and money associated with seeing a doctor in person, while those living in regional areas use it to access services not readily available in their region.

"Juggling work and family commitments can mean getting to the doctor is tough, and often people put off a visit purely because they don't have the time," Ginni Mansberg, a general practitioner who was consulted on the report, said.

"Now, as more Australians gain access to the NBN network, they are being empowered to manage their health from home. With access to fast broadband, everything from testing blood pressure and skin cancer checks, to in-home monitoring for the elderly, can be done online from the comfort of people's homes."

The Australian government-funded NBN aims to provide 38 percent of the population with fibre to the node, fibre to the basement, and fibre to the distribution point; 34 percent with hybrid fibre-coaxial; 20 percent with fibre to the premises; 5 percent with fixed wireless; and 3 percent with satellite services by 2020.

"Australia being such a large country means that many are geographically remote, which can be challenging in terms of healthcare. The health divide is a real issue ... however, with more Australians gaining access to faster broadband, more people now have direct access to GPs and specialists no matter where they live," said Dr James Freeman, who was commissioned by NBN to act as an advocate for Digital Diagnosis.

"Without the NBN network, my business wouldn't be able to meet its potential, our consultations are smooth and intimate, and patients feel as cared for as if they were sitting in a doctor's surgery.

"Quality online care cannot happen without a world-class internet infrastructure."

The federal government has been pushing e-health for several years, with its original opt-in e-health record system switched on in 2012 and given a further AU$485 million in funding in the 2015-16 Budget. At the same time, it was rebranded from the "personally controlled e-health record system" (PCEHR) to My Health Record.

The most recent funding injection will improve the billion-dollar system by updating it with various recommendations from GPs.

A 2013 review of My Health Record by former Minister for Health Peter Dutton had suggested that the system be made opt-out in order to improve signup numbers. In September last year, the government responded by introducing legislation that will see e-health accounts automatically assigned to patients.

The e-health record opt-out trial was slated to begin in early 2016 and involve 1 million patients in North Queensland and the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.

According to Minister for Health Sussan Ley, a properly functioning national e-health system could save taxpayers up to AU$2.5 billion per year within a decade's time, with another AU$1.6 billion per year savings for the states.

However, others have suggested that the government is concentrating on this cost saving rather than security and privacy concerns; in November, the Australian Privacy Foundation accused the Senate of being "dangerously naive" in thinking that opt-out e-health records could be secured against breaches of privacy.

The Senate had said it would institute penalties for privacy breaches in order to address concerns over the misuse of confidential medical information, but even lawful access to the medical information could constitute a "huge invasion of privacy", the Privacy Foundation argued, as anyone employed in any capacity by a medical facility could access the health records of patients.

Earlier this month, Victorian Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection David Watts added his voice to the criticisms, saying that switching e-health records to opt-out was a "fundamental breach of trust".

"I actually designed the regulatory system for e-health in Australia, and I swore black and blue ... that we would never be an opt-out system, and always be an opt-in. And of course it's now an opt-out system in order to drive take-up of e-health, because AU$4 billion had been spent on it and very few people had registered," Watts told the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) Navigating Privacy and Security Summit in Canberra.

"It says something about trust across government that those sorts of principles would be thrown away simply because a system's not been used as much as it should be."