As of mid January 2021, Shoalhaven residents are able to access specialised stroke care, without having to travel to Sydney.
When a patient presents to Shoalhaven District Memorial Hospital with the symptoms of stroke, their condition can be assessed by specialist neurologists at the Prince of Wales Hospital.
The service is the latest in the telestroke program, which is connecting people in regional and rural NSW to the best neurologists and stroke specialists in NSW.
Rhian Paton Kelly, Stroke Foundation NSW state manager, said the service would be a revolution in stroke care.
"It means patients have access to stroke care and stroke specialists that they would usually only get in larger hospitals."
Images from a CT scanner in Shoalhaven District Memorial Hospital are shared in real-time with a stroke specialist based in Sydney's Prince of Wales Hospital. The specialist can diagnose the patient and provide assistance to local doctors via a video call. With 1.9 billion brain cells dying every minute when a stroke occurs, having quick access to specialist care can make a significant difference.
"The quicker you can receive treatment, the better outcome you're going to have post stroke. This service means patients can receive treatment in a really timely manner on site at Shoalhaven Hospital," said Paton Kelly.
While planning for telestroke had been underway well prior to the first roll out in Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie in mid 2020, the service has demonstrated how telehealth can be used in medical emergencies as well as for general health consultations.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth was rapidly expanded to be accessible for most Australians in ways that it had never been before.
Before 2020, for telehealth consultations to be subsidised by Medicare a patient had to live in the most remote areas of Australia and required an existing clinical relationship with the GP providing the telehealth consultation.
This all changed on March 23, 2020, as telehealth subsidies under the Medicare Benefits Schedule were rolled out first for GPs that were vulnerable to COVID-19 and then, a week later, for the entire population. At the time, Health Minister Greg Hunt said the changes were essential in ensuring Australia could weather the COVID storm.
"We are making telehealth a key weapon in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Expanding the consultation services available by telehealth is the next critical stage in the Government's response to COVID-19," Hunt said in a statement.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Dr Harry Nespolon did not understate the magnitude of this change.
"These are the most significant changes to Medicare that we've seen in a long time," Nespolon said at the time.
While then director of the Australian Medical Association Dr Tony Bartone noted that "It may take some patients and doctors who are not familiar with telehealth some time to adjust, but the adjustment will be worthwhile," the speed of adoption of telehealth was so rapid that by May, 10 million Medicare-funded services had been provided.
While there is great potential for the use of technology in improving access to health services, prevention and general health can avoid the need for a call to be made in the first place, whether for a minor condition or a serious medical emergency.
"More than 80 per cent of strokes are preventable, and the way that you can do that is by managing your blood pressure, cholesterol, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, exercising and keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum," said Paton Kelly.