Aussies in the bush reaping benefits of COVID-19 online service delivery

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If there is anything good to come out of the coronavirus pandemic, it could be that rural Australians end up better connected to essential and recreational services than ever before.

Key points:

  • Therapists and clinicians are discovering it is possible to deliver care remotely
  • Rural doctors says expansion of telehealth would result in healthier rural population
  • COVID-19 restrictions have also expanded online tuition to the dance lessons

The Federal Government this week announced a $669 million expansion of Medicare subsidies for telehealth services, allowing general practitioners and allied health professionals to consult with patients over video conferencing rather than face to face.

It is a development Brisbane speech pathologist Heidi Begg has been seeking for the past four years for rural communities.

Ms Begg’s practice, Spot Therapy, has been delivering speech therapy lessons all over regional Australia but — without Medicare subsidies — at full cost to its clients.

A new way of doing things

Now that all health professionals can access their patients online, Ms Begg said the delivery of services to rural and remote Australia would be changed forever.

“There are lots of great therapists and clinicians who are [only] comfortable seeing their clients face-to-face clients,” she said.

“I don’t just mean speech therapists, but paediatricians, psychologists — people that are really lacking in the bush.”

Ms Begg said those therapists and clinicians were now discovering that it was possible to deliver care remotely, it just required a bit more effort when it came to engaging a child over a screen.

“You just have to improvise a lot of the time, it’s quite entertaining,” she said.

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‘Just get creative’

Hippotherapy, from the Greek word ‘hippos’ meaning horse, literally means treatment with a horse — and, for clients of the Two Hearts Therapy equine school, it used to involve travel to the riding facility near Brisbane.

But after just two weeks of coronavirus regulations, equine-assisted occupational therapy is now also being successfully delivered online.

Occupational therapist, Cassie Allison, said she just had to get creative.

“We’re adapting a few ways, by using the ponies as a bit of an ‘elf on the shelf’ for little kids or, if a child finishes an activity, we will go over and video chat with one of our horses, Biscuit and give him a treat,” she said.

“I’m also sending some of our clients videos of what the ponies have been up to and that helps prompt a discussion.”

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Ms Allison said she never would have thought remote hippotherapy possible, but she could now see the online service continuing and even expanding in the future.

“It’s definitely something I would have never thought of doing before, but I think it has some longevity to it,” she said.

“Why not now go regional?”

Telehealth expansion

That was a sentiment shared by Adam Coltzau, a general practitioner in the south west Queensland town of St George and the past president of the Rural Doctors Association of Australia.

In preparing his community for COVID-19, Dr Coltzau had been using phone and video technology to consult with many of his patients, reducing the need for face-to-face interaction.

He said the expansion of telehealth would result in a healthier rural population, long after the pandemic.

“People often avoid going to the doctor and put their farm and animals’ health above their own,” Dr Coltzau said.

“We hope that telehealth will really allow people to be more connected with their doctor and their allied health practitioner, so we can change health in the bush for the better.”

Now dance lessons online

In north-west Queensland, Branches Performing Arts — like many similar organisations across Australia — had chosen to go online to continue to deliver dance classes to its students in Cloncurry, Julia Creek and Hughenden.

In the past, some students had to travel hundreds of kilometres each week from remote cattle stations to learn to dance, and owner Amy Tinning said online classes had been on her radar for a long time before COVID-19 restrictions.

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“We straight away turned to digital platforms,” she said.

“We’ve trialled and then this week we’re also distributing pre-recorded classes.

“Certainly, we’ve had to modify what we do greatly, but our digital platform has been really integral in not restricting our students any more than they already are.”

Ms Tinning said she wanted to continue offering online dance classes to rural and remote students after the pandemic passes.

“Digitising the way we offer dance training is something that has honestly been on the to-do list for quite a few years now, so I believe that, COVID-19 crisis or not, this is here to stay for us,” she said.

“There’s always been a fair bit of interest there, from kids in the bush or various towns who would like to access [dance] training.”

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