Telehealth is improving access to Aboriginal health services in regional areas — locals don’t want to see it go – ABC News

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When the COVID pandemic struck, the Bendigo District and Aboriginal Co-operative started seeing 90 per cent of its patients via telehealth.

BDAC executive director and Dhrug man Dallas Widdicombe said the introduction of telehealth services was behind the rise in people showing up.

“We realised we had more people attending their appointments then we’d ever had before,” Mr Widdicombe said.

A man is sitting at a computer, reading paper.
Dallas Widdicombe credits the introduction of telehealth services for the rise in patient attendance.(ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Clinical practice manager and Arabana woman Jaydene Burzacott confirmed the clinic started seeing a significant number of new patients during the pandemic due to the provision of telehealth.

“We were increasing by about six patients a week,” she said.

“We were seeing a lot of new people for the first time in a very long time.”

A woman with black hair in a black uniform is taking a man's blood pressure as he sits in a GP room.
Ms Burzacott says telehealth has saved lives and could help close the gap. (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Telehealth enables crucial mental health support

Ms Burzacott says while telehealth helps make a range of health services more accessible for a lot of people, BDAC has seen a surge in people accessing mental health services via telehealth.

“Mental health appointments were a really big one,” she said.

“I think it really helped people to be able to talk about their mental health over the phone.

“Sometimes it can be really hard … and it can be easier to do it over the phone.

Ms Burzacott says the tough times aren’t over, with many Aboriginal people facing anxiety around going out into the community.

“Having to show a double vax status to go into places is going to be hard for some Aboriginal people, because it’s recent history that Aboriginal people weren’t allowed to enter pubs and places,” she said

Ms Burzacott believes extending providing telehealth is also in line with Closing the Gap recommendations.

“Telehealth will improve health and improve access to healthcare, so it will play its part in closing the gap in life expectancy,” she said

A mobile phone calling 'GP clinic' being held with a wad of tissues
Research has found telehealth has led to increased access to medical care. (ABC Riverland)

Calls for government to keep telehealth

The government subsidised telehealth service is due to finish in January.

BDAC is calling for the federal government to extend funding for telehealth for Aboriginal health services.

Ms Burzacott said it is crucial that it continues, as it saves lives.

She also fears the health of Aboriginal communities will go backwards if telehealth is taken away.

“Things like medication education and compliance won’t happen.”

Mr Widdicombe agrees telehealth is an essential part of BDAC’s health services and fears stopping it now could be disastrous for the community.

“We’re going to be bringing elders in, who are not sick, but need scripts filled … we’re going to be bringing them into an environment where we have sick people and putting them more at risk,” he said.

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