How can Telehealth help with allied services?

Allied health professions refer to health care professions distinct from dentistry, nursing, medicine and pharmacy. They provide a range of diagnostic, technical, therapeutic, and support services in connection with health care. Some common examples of allied health professionals include; chiropractor, psychologist, podiatrist, paramedic and midwives.

In 2012, the international chief health professions officers defined allied health professions as:

Allied Health Professions are a distinct group of health professionals who apply their expertise to prevent disease transmission, diagnose, treat and rehabilitate people of all ages and all specialties. Together with a range of technical and support staff they may deliver direct patient care, rehabilitation, treatment, diagnostics and health improvement interventions to restore and maintain optimal physical, sensory, psychological, cognitive and social functions.

Health consumers in remote, regional and outer metropolitan/country areas are faced with barriers to accessing specialist services such as allied services when compared to those living in city areas. This is because rural and remote communities are quite small and do not have the necessary population to support all allied health services. As such, access to services by allied health professionals are served differently and are limited. This is particularly true where the allied health service may be a specialty area within a profession. For example, paediatrics, neurology, rheumatology or diabetes. Here, telehealth can assist health consumers to overcome these barriers through enabling and providing them with access to specialist services sooner with lower travel costs and better continuity of care.

For those interested in using telehealth for allied services here are some reasons why:

1) Benefit for the health consumer

A health consumer can be assessed and diagnosed by an allied health professional through the use of ICT. Telehealth also provides opportunity for a remotely located allied health professional to provide treatment, manage and monitor and deliver education about the health consumer’s case. The timing of the intervention by an allied health professional can be in real time or asynchronous.

2) Benefit to the health system

There is both a cost and time benefit in delivering allied health services via telehealth rather than taking the health consumer to the service or the health consumer not accessing services at all.

Travel and time costs for the consumer to be taken to a specialist allied health practitioner (for example an Occupational Therapist who specialises in rheumatology, a Speech Pathologist who specialises in swallowing disorders). Locally based AHPs, allied health assistants or other workers may be with the consumer in the remote location and video conference with a specialist AHP located in a metropolitan or large regional centre.

For effective and efficient service provision it is important that allied health professional services be recognised by the Australian Government in enabling access to the National Broadband Network. Also, rebates should be introduced for services through the Medical Benefits Scheme (MBS) to compensate the allied health professional for the services provided.

3) Benefit for the clinician

Rural and remote allied health professionals experience limited access to professional development, both formal and informal. This includes access to training delivered by their employers, short courses, workshops and/or formal training delivered by the tertiary sector. ICT can provide access to online training for rural and remote allied health professionals or allied health assistants / other relevant workers. Real time training can be delivered via teleconference and satellite technology. The worker can receive such training through computer, television or videoconferencing facilities. Online learning packages, access to journals and discussion forums are other ways of accessing education and training that may delivered in real time or asynchronous (where the training is available to the health professional at a time convenient to them, rather than ‘live’ or at a specific time).

Telehealth provides a viable means of accessing allied health services not otherwise available to health consumers in rural and remote areas of Australia. Telehealth should not be used as a substitute for the provision of face to face health care by a health professional to the health consumer. If direct interaction is available or better health outcomes would be achieved by face to face contact between the health professional and health consumer then this is the preferred health service delivery model. In order to provide an efficient and effective service, telehealth must be enabled through the provision of hardware, software, financing, education and training and access to the National Broadband Network.