Virtual clinic reveals future of rural medicine

30 September, 2013

A successful high definition, online trial of a virtual clinic by the University of Wollongong's Graduate School of Medicine is trailblazing the way for future medical practice in Australia's rural and remote areas.

The trial was tested out across three of the university's rural campuses, which are up to 1500km apart.

Remarkably, the trial used an existing broadband connection and software costing less than a $1000. This is the first time in Australia students from the three rural campuses were able to connect online to participate in a clinic of this kind.

"Normally this kind of interactive session requires expensive dedicated proprietary technology at both ends costing tens of thousands of dollars, high definition cameras, a full studio set-up and enormously expensive equipment for transmission," said Professor Andrew Bonney, the project's leader.

"We were able to deliver a high definition interactive virtual teaching clinic to campuses in Wollongong, Armidale and Shoalhaven in a session taught by a practising psychiatrist, a general practitioner and a patient at a very low cost."

Professor Bonney said it is essential that transmission is seamless, with perfect colour and sound to allow participants to feel as if they are in the same room and to allow accurate diagnostics of simulation patients.

It is hoped that future sessions will involve the transmissions of ultrasound images and various surgical procedures.

The trial is part of a larger project led by Professor Bonney that aims to give medical students and junior doctors virtual access to specialist teaching using existing infrastructure.

As a rural GP himself, Professor Bonney has a clear understanding of the importance of creating a virtual link with medical practitioners in remote locations.

Technology is rapidly being developed that allows specialists to directly consult with remote patients or those with mobility problems. At the same time medical students and junior doctors in regional Australia could improve their expertise by taking part in telehealth consultations and virtual clinics like that presented in the first trial.

But for Professor Bonney, a cornerstone of the project is to encourage the current crop of young doctors to stay in rural communities.

"By giving rural and remote practitioners access to this technology and the new level of expertise and additional support it brings we can help retain doctors in rural Australia," he said.

"Through this technology there is the potential to create a community of remote doctors and specialists who will work together and support each other with a full understanding of the issues that rural GPs face."

The next part of the project is another virtual clinic, focused on psychiatry, which will be carried out on 10 October, with another eight clinics to follow that.

The project is supported by University of Wollongong, University of New England, University of Newcastle, Deakin University, University of Notre Dame Australia, GPSynergy and CoastCityCountry General Practice Training. The virtual clinics are only open to participants involved within this network.

The project is funded through the NBN-Enabled Education and Skills Services Program.