Covid-19-imposed isolation put telehealth on the map. Health researchers are now exploring new ways to grow digital health opportunities for patients where isolation is an ongoing part of daily life, and for the healthcare providers who serve them.
James Cook University (JCU) is spearheading a project which aims to revolutionise the delivery of digital health care to rural and remote communities in Northern Australia, through technical expansion and innovation, upskilling healthcare providers, and patient education.
Funded by a $2 million grant from the Australian Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE), The Northern Australian Regional Digital Health Collaborative (NARDHC) is a novel partnership between health and digital experts, including CSIRO, Optus, the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia and Northern Queensland Primary Health Network.
Following extensive consultation with key stakeholders throughout the region — such as healthcare providers, healthcare consumers, research institutions, digital health solution providers, and communication organisations — the NARDHC team has begun to roll out initiatives tailored to help address the need for digital education and innovation.
“It’s not technology that works, it’s people that work. And we do not want a healthcare divide to develop between those that are technically savvy and those that aren’t,” said JCU Research Fellow and NARDHC project manager, Dr Salifu Yusif.
Some 60 health and allied health workers are currently enrolled in the NARDHC Digital Health for Rural and Remote Health Micro online credential course developed by JCU experts. It includes a cultural component to help course participants engage effectively with patients online, including the elderly and those living in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
“We have to look at this issue from a social perspective, not just medical and technical perspectives. The technology may be fine, but if patients do not feel comfortable accessing health care via such technology or are not convinced of the benefits, then it is useless,” said Dr Yusif.
NARDHC has developed six seed funding project proposals, largely focused on the development of user-friendly digital health technology for patients. Successful project applicants will each receive up to $50,000 to produce new or enhanced digital health tools which target specific health priorities in the region, including home management and remote monitoring of chronic disease patients, as well as frail, elderly residents still living at home.
“To be in a position where you can be monitored in the comfort of your own home, rather than summon an ambulance for home triage or travel some distance to hospital for what turns out to be a minor issue, that is going to empower patients,” said Dr Yusif.
JCU Lecturer in Electronic Systems and Internet of Things (IoT) Engineering, Dr Stephanie Baker, has already begun to explore how IoT and AI-powered remote monitoring devices could be utilised to support home-based care of the elderly.
IoT is the interconnection, via the internet, of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data. Dr Baker is focusing on the development of wearable and environmental sensors that can detect elevated stress, falls and unusually long rest periods in patients, then transmit that information directly to health carers.
Project BAMBOO aims to assist first-time mothers who lack social support, which can leave them vulnerable to postpartum mental disorders, while the Healthcare Digital Front Door seeks to enable patients to submit digital pre-appointment summaries to facilitate communication with health professionals.
Other NARDHC projects will focus on the development of digital tools to enhance the flow of clinical information about patients between healthcare providers and promote shared care planning. All projects will be developed for pilot implementation and undergo field testing in Northern Queensland within the next two years.
Dr Yusif is keen to encourage other digital bright sparks to submit ideas for additional project consideration. “We believe this digital health model could be adopted across the country,” he said. “It’s a win-win situation for both patients and healthcare providers.”
Want to know more? Visit NARDHC.