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Telemedicine Chemotherapy Program Sees Success Down Under

A videoconferencing platform in the Australian Outback is connecting cancer specialists with remote patients and their nurses. Could a similar program work in the U.S.?

By Eric Wicklund

- What better location to prove the value of telemedicine than the Australian Outback?

Videoconferencing platforms have proven their value in the U.S. for diverse healthcare services like abortions, ER consults and behavioral health. Now a hospital in Queensland is using the platform to deliver chemotherapy treatments to cancer patients hundreds of miles away.

Specialists at Queensland Health’s Townsville Hospital have been conducting three-day training programs for remote nurses, giving them all they need to know to deliver chemotherapy at their clinic or hospital. Specialist training usually takes about a year, officials said, making specialist nurses a valued commodity across the nation.

Professor Sabe Sabesan, director of medical oncology at Townsville Hospital, said the telehealth platform enables cancer patients at distant, remote sites like Mount Isa, Mornington Island, Winton and Hughenden to skip the hours-long travel to Townsviille for a five-minute consultation and 30-minute session, and get treatment closer to home.

"Cancer patients already have symptoms from cancer, now they have side effects from chemotherapy, the last thing they want is travel," he recently told ABC News in Australia. "So that gives us enormous professional satisfaction that not only we can provide our services but also we have contributed to patient welfare."

Sabesan said the remote nurses aren’t fully trained to conduct chemotherapy treatments on their own, but are given the instruction needed to handle the process while being overseen via video feed by Townsville Hospital’s specialist nurses.

"In terms of safety there are no shortcuts," he said. "What we found was you could provide the same intensity of treatment with the same side effects and same safety profiles to this patient if you follow the safety guidelines.”

While reducing stress and travel for cancer patients, the telemedicine program also saves Queensland Health in transportation costs (it reimburses patients for their travel). Sabesan said the system has saved enough money to hire a doctor to oversee oncology patients in Mount Isa.

The Outback might seem worlds away to US healthcare, but the success of the video visit model is certainly global. Last December, the University of Missouri School of Medicine found that more than 80 percent of providers and patients surveyed are satisfied with video-based care as a means of reaching people in rural locations.

“Telehealth uses technology such as video conferencing to bridge the distance between a patient and physician,” Mirna Becevic, PhD, an assistant research professor of telemedicine at the MU School of Medicine and lead author of the study, said in a report accompanying the study. “It allows patients to remain in their communities, saving them from undue hardships related to long-distance travel and time off work. Although the main concept is to provide health services to patients, for telemedicine to be truly effective, it also must be beneficial to those who provide care. The goal of our study was to understand satisfaction levels of all telehealth users.”

Telehealth-based chemotherapy programs could also help struggling integrated community oncology programs in the U.S. According to an April 2015 study by the Berkeley Research Group, such programs offer improved access and convenience for patients and lower costs for payers, but they’re facing uphill battles in reimbursement and competition from hospitals.

“(I)ntegrated community oncology practices are providing leading-edge cancer care in a convenient, high-touch environment at a lower cost than hospital outpatient departments," Aaron Vandervelde, a researcher with the Berkeley Research Group and co-author of the study, told RevCycleIntelligence.com last April. "Patients and payers alike are benefiting enormously from these practices and the coordinated and personalized approach they bring to cancer care."

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