Bringing Digital Health to Central Australia — introducing Dr Sam Goodwin

Australia's digital health system is currently developing and evolving to best serve the community's needs, and arguably, people living in the most remote areas of the continent stand to benefit the most. Recently, Tim Kelsey, CEO, Prof Meredith Makeham, Chief Medical Advisor and I travelled to the Northern Territory to meet with a number of stakeholders, among them, Dr Sam Goodwin, the Executive Director of Medical and Clinical Services with the Central Australian Health Service. Having lived and worked in the area for 11 years, Dr Goodwin gives first-hand insights into the challenges faced by remote communities and how digital services can make a significant, positive difference.

Dr Sam Goodwin of the Central Australia Health Service

Dr Sam Goodwin Executive Director of Medical and Clinical Services with Central Australian Health Service

The Central Australian Health Service covers a two million square kilometre expanse in the Northern Territory and parts of Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia. Between 60,000-80,000 residents come under its jurisdiction, a high percentage identify as Indigenous Australians.

Dealing with such a vast area, the health services are a complex umbrella for different healthcare providers, including public and Aboriginal Medical Services, non-government organisations and private practices. Hospitals and clinics offer general practice care, along with ambulatory care specialist branches that cater for prevalent conditions in Indigenous communities, such as diabetes, kidney disease and other chronic illnesses. Dr Goodwin points out these health issues are impacted by lower socio-economic standards of living and long travelling distances for face-to-face medical treatment. For many, a trip to a specialist entails a 1,000 kilometre round trip.

Dr Goodwin believes that Digital Health has the power to address some of these problems. For example, video conferencing between patient and healthcare provider – Telehealth – can eliminate the need for a patient to travel those great distances. It will save time and money, providing a virtual consulting office without the patient having to leave their families and miss work. That's progress, and the best way to take healthcare to remote areas. Of course, Telehealth can have positive applications in urban areas as well, where hospitals and clinics are crowded and waiting times are long. Imagine being able to receive primary care from a doctor in the comfort of your own home.

For the last decade, the NT has had its own electronic summary record available. The NT based My Electronic Health Record has over 72,000 patient records available with 74,979 views for the month of February 2017. This system has been a flagship service and contributes to the support for adopting the national My Health Record. Clinicians based in the Northern Territory easily recognise the benefits of having a summary health record as they have seen significant value in accessing the system and applying the information to improve health care outcomes. Dr Goodwin gives the example of a sick child being transferred from a community controlled health centre to a hospital, where multiple doctors are involved in the young patient's treatment. Linking all of their medical information in one convenient digital file saves time and resources and, most importantly, allows for a well informed and holistic approach to the child's treatment and recovery. Patients who suffer from a range of chronic illnesses and who see multiple physicians will also benefit from a My Health Record – a summary record that's up-to-date, reliable and functional.

I asked Dr Goodwin about the challenges of bringing a Digital Health system to areas so remote that people don't have access to computers and, even if they did, aren't necessarily tech savvy. He pointed out that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples are actually "comparably familiar" with the digital world. If they use mobile phones (and they do) they can take advantage of the Digital Health services and other mobile health applications. It's just a matter of putting the infrastructure in place and supplying communities with the right network and broadband capabilities. He is both confident and optimistic that digital health will continue to be developed and utilised in remote communities. The fact is traditional models of healthcare can't always accommodate a patient's needs in our remote regions. Digital Health has the ability to put the patient's needs at the centre of health care, creating equity of access to treatment within complex and disparate health systems.

Robyn Lowe
Communications Program Manager