Healthcare suffers in rural areas due to inadequate broadband

(Image Credit: iStockPhoto/NickRH)

According to clinicians, healthcare in rural areas is suffering due to inadequate broadband connectivity in regional and rural areas. 

The leading association for Australian doctors and medical students, the Australian Medical Association (AMA), shared this view in a statement released yesterday. The statement highlights telehealth and telemedicine services are not reaching their potential due to poor internet access. 

"Approximately 30 percent of Australia’s population lives outside the major metropolitan areas. Regional, rural and remote Australians often struggle to access health services that urban Australians would see as a basic right. These inequalities mean that they have lower life expectancy, worse outcomes on leading indicators of health, and poorer access to care compared to people in major cities," the AMA wrote. 

In a survey conducted last year, the AMA sought input from rural doctors into how their care for patients could be improved. High-speed broadband for practices was highlighted as the key priority. 

The availability of internet across the country remains sporadic. 80 percent of Australians in rural areas had an internet connection at home based on 2015 research, compared to 89 percent in capitals. For mobile, usage was much lower in rural areas (37%) than urban (60%) due to unreliable or absent coverage. 

Mobile broadband usage remains low in both urban and rural areas due to high costs for small amounts of data making it unsuitable for many scenarios – including eHealth. 

Included within the statement is a citation from the 2016 Regional Telecommunications Review which highlighted the struggle which clinicians and patients in remote areas have in connecting with those elsewhere for specialist advice. 

With an increasing use of connected technology in healthcare, the AMA warns there is a "risk that regional, rural and remote areas of Australia will be left further behind in the ability to provide quality health services.” 

One suggested action the AMA wants the government to pursue include establishing a new funding mechanism known as the Consumer Communication Fund to replace the existing telecommunications industry levy – as recommended in the 2015 Regional Telecommunications Review. 

Further suggestions include extending the boundaries of the NBN’s fibre cable and fixed wireless footprints, and prioritise broadband capacity available by satellite for hospitals and medical practices to help ensure it's reliable enough for purpose. 

full list of AMA’s requested actions can be found here (PDF) 

Should improving rural broadband access for healthcare be prioritised? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

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