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Original Research

Telemedicine in remote Australia: The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) Medical Chest Program as a marker of remote health

AUTHORS

John J Cherry1 MBBS, Junior Medical Officer

Warren Rich2 PhD, Lecturer: Research & Critical Analysis

Peter McLennan3 PhD, Professor of Physiology *

AFFILIATIONS

1 Graduate Medicine, Faculty of Science Medicine and Health, University of Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia. Present address: Orange Health Service, 1502 Forest Road, Orange, NSW 2800, Australia

2, 3 Graduate Medicine, Faculty of Science Medicine and Health, University of Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia

ACCEPTED: 22 February 2018


early abstract:

Introduction: Remote communities across Australia lack the ready access to medical care generally afforded to metropolitan populations. The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) medical chest program provides medical resources to these communities allowing medications to be dispensed in conjunction with a telehealth consulting service. More than 3,000 medical chests are located throughout Australia and each year the Queensland RFDS conducts approximately 20,000 telehealth consultations. The aim of this study was to review the use of the medical chest model within Queensland and to analyse changes in the medical chest program from 10 years earlier to evaluate the changing healthcare needs of remote Australian populations.

Method: All telehealth consultations and items dispensed from the medical chests were reviewed over a one year period from 1st July 2013 – 30th June 2014. Items dispensed were categorised and compared to 2005/06 in absolute terms by one-way ANOVA and proportionately by Chi square with Fisher’s exact test.  Consultations using the medical chest were categorised and compared to 2005/06 by Chi square with Fisher’s exact test.

Results: The number of telehealth consultations conducted in 2013/14 (N=20,707) was not different to the number conducted in 2005/06 (N=21,470).  Fewer items were dispensed from the medical chests in 2013/14 (3936 total items) than in 2005/06 (8607 total items; p<0.0001).  In the specific categories of “burns and other dressings” and “antihistamines”, the number of individual items dispensed increased. Resources from the medical chest were used more for genitourinary system consultations and less for consultations involving specific infectious diseases, the circulation, respiratory and abdominal systems, skin diseases, injury, symptoms without a diagnosis and following other contact with a health service.

Conclusions: The medical chests remain a vital tool for medical care of remote populations and the need for telehealth medical advice remains unchanged, although fewer items are being dispensed. The use of the medical chest for each diagnostic category of consultation has shown some variation over the past 10 years, reflective of changing patterns of accident, injury and disease.