Case study: Ngaanyatjarra Health Service’s outback challenge
The Ngaanyatjarra Health Service provides health services for 2000 indigenous people living in the Gibson Desert, an area covering the size of Victoria. Joshua Gliddon spoke with Ngaanyatjarra’s chief executive Brett Cowling about the challenges of delivering healthcare to the area’s population, and the promise held for health services by the National Broadband Network.
The Challenge: Deliver health services to a mobile population spread across 12 communities located in the Gibson Desert.
The Approach: Use of clinics on the ground and a nascent telemedicine system.
The Outcomes: As telemedicine becomes more accessible and the NBN is rolled out, more people will have access to specialist health services for the first time.
The Lessons Learned: Broadband is vital in remote communities to improve access, education and communication.
The Upside for:
Clinicians: Broadband enables clinicians to stay in contact with peers, maintain professional education, and share professional services.
Patients: Can access services previously unavailable due to their location.
The Organisation: Broadband enables the Health Service to provide a greater range of services to its constituents in remote areas.
The Ngaanyatjarra Health Service story
The Ngaanyatjarra Health Service, headquartered in Alice Springs, serves twelve communities spread across the central Gibson Desert in Western Australia.
“It’s the largest native title claim ever made in this country,” notes Brett Cowling, Ngaanyatjarra Health Service chief executive. “All up, it’s an area a little bigger than Victoria covering the central desert region.”
Delivering health services to such a large, geographically dispersed population is a significant challenge. The Health Service has a staff of 86, including support staff needed to manage clinicians, general practitioners, allied health workers and nurses. Those 86 people deliver services to approximately 2,000 indigenous people, a population that Mr Cowling notes is highly mobile and needs to access health services from different locations at different times.
As a result, telecommunications and ehealth have become a vital backbone for health service delivery in the region.
“We see ehealth and telecommunications as vital to the business,” said Mr Cowling. “We run a head office from Alice Springs, and then have people dotted across the lands and in the 12 communities. Electronic communication with the members of the health team is absolutely vital.”
The Health Service runs a mix of communications technologies, including ADSL to some communities and satellite to some other communities. Some also have access to 3G telephone services provided by Telstra, however it’s the overall lack of broadband into some of the communities holding back what Mr Cowling considers the most significant innovation in the health sector: video conferencing and teleconsults.
“Video conferencing is new to us, and we are trialing it at a number of hub locations,” he said. “We are using it as a link to clinicians for education, as well as for patients to bridge the access gap between primary healthcare and specialist healthcare.”
The communities with satellite are, unfortunately, left out of the teleconsultation loop for the meantime because bandwidth limitations and costs are prohibitive.
“We are gearing up for that to change with the NBN,” said Mr Cowling. “The NBN will not only allow us to do teleconsultations and video conferencing, but will also allow the transfer of documents, images and ultrasounds via broadband between the communities and clinicians.”
While arguments for and against the NBN are often lost, at least in urban areas, among a thicket of complaints about cost and use scenarios, it’s obvious the network will provide significant amenity to people living in rural and remote areas - in particular indigenous people and the clinicians that serve them.
© eHealthspace.org Limited