DELIVERING effective health and counselling programs online during the pandemic hit a big hurdle for Ballarat Community Health.
A digital divide to clients accessing appropriate equipment and data fast became clear.
When Wendouree Breakfast Rotary club stepped up to help, this opened new and unexpected doors for clients.
BCH alcohol and other drugs manager Suzanne Powell said the great add-ons were clients previously uncomfortable or lacking confidence with technology grow their potential, from learning to navigate a laptop to creating their own email.
"Coming to the end of our first virtual program we'll now be supporting people to buy their own hot-spot devices and resources," Ms Powell said.
"This has certainly not only provided people with opportunities to take part and communicate and connect in treatment, it's opened more doors to education and to connect more with family and other services."
BCH has adapted all counselling and support services to online conferencing and phone platforms amid coronavirus restrictions since March.
Ms Powell said while phone can work for some people, face-to-face contact online was often a vital tool and especially in group sessions.
"Communication is as much about body language as it is words - and you can't always get the full picture over the phone," Ms Powell said. "Withdrawal nurses have been able to work with this too. It's given us lots of food for thought going forward."
Going online has extended BCH's community reach, including into acute therapy treatment programs where possible.
BCH's Making a Change, or MAC program, was one of the first online pilot programs for the centre.
The structured eight-week alcohol and other drugs day rehabilitation program was re-formulated into a six-week program. Ms Powell said the online conferencing program demanded at least nine gigabytes a week, which was a large amount for people on limited data.
This was the kind of gap Wendouree Breakfast Rotarians had been looking to help bridge.
Wendouree Breakfast president Huy Nguyen said his club had been saving money for a special project the past three years. The pandemic hit and helping BCH to directly make a difference in the Ballarat community seemed like the perfect fit.
"We normally meet face-to-face for club meetings every week. Our club members have been feeling the need to connect and we started Zoom meetings," Mr Nguyen said.
"(Ms Powell's) clients were also struggling without face-to-fac and many were lacking the technology. We felt it was an easy fit and the special project we had been waiting for."
The Rotary club's funds primarily purchased laptops and hot-spot devices for BCH clients to borrow as need for their programs.
Ms Powell said her team had approached the pivot as pilot programs, learning on the go and adjusting content and delivery. She said the team had been reliant on open feedback to co-design the online program delivery and this would help to set the foundations for what might be possible in online health after COVID-19 restrictions.
Push to keep telehealth's reach out in the wider region
MOVING alcohol and other drug rehabilitation online has broken the troubles of distance for Ballarat Community Health.
While the Making a Change day rehabilitation program shift was about adapting to coronavirus pandemic restrictions, project manager Suzanne Powell said this had opened greater access for people living in geographic isolation, particularly in the Wimmera.
Ms Powell said people living in places like Warracknabeal and St Arnaud often had limited public transport options and this made it harder to take part in a near-daily program for and eight-week period.
Distance has been a key hurdle the pandemic has helped people living further out in the western region to overcome. The Courier has reported on specialists in paediatric speech and occupational therapies checking in on clients in Ararat, oncology teams offering support to patients across the region, optometry and physiotherapy tapping into telehealth.
Now the Royal Australasian College of Physicians is campaigning for the federal government's Medicare telehealth rebates to become permanent, Fairfax Media is reporting. The rebates were rolled out in mid-March to make medical care safer and more accessible amid COVID-19 restrictions.
These Medicare rebates were otherwise set to expire at the end of September.
In a survey of RACP members, 70 per cent said patients were more likely to keep appointments.
This push could open more doors across the health sector.
Ms Powell, in speaking to media about digital poverty made clearer in healthcare during the pandemic, said communication was as much about body language as it was words. Group sessions like MAC helped to overcome this via video conferencing.
The shift had uncovered far-ranging benefits for community health, Ms Powell said.
BCH has also been able to reach people in in-patient therapy programs at Ballarat Health Services Base Hospital.
The MAC program was shorted to a six-week format in what Ms Powell said was approached as a pilot program, reliant on client feedback. This helped to shape what was possible for improving access to BCH programs in post-COVID life.
Meanwhile, West Wimmera and Stawell health services have both reported sharp rises in telehealth use across their patches during lockdown. A key part of telehealth use has been in easier access to specialists in Ballarat for what otherwise might be a day-long outing.
Stawell is reported to maintain no less than 40 per cent telehealth consultations with general practitioners in post-pandemic life, particularly to better reach its patients who were socially isolated or had complex medical needs.
West Wimmera Health Service is also set to host a community online forum next week. The organisation's chief executive officer Ritchie Dodds said traditionally it had been challenging for people to attend community meetings.