When the pandemic hit Australia’s shores last year one of the most remote Aboriginal communities in Australia found itself cut off from its monthly fly-in-fly-out GP for ten months.

Tjuntjuntjara – located 650km north east of Kalgoorlie in the Great Victoria Desert of Western Australia – has relied on the services of health professionals from Adelaide for the last ten years.

With doctors unable to fly across state borders during the lockdown, the Aboriginal community-controlled Spinifex Health Service turned to digital health to maintain the health of its 160 community members.

Dr Jill Benson is the medical director at Spinifex Health and has been travelling to Tjuntjuntjara for more than ten years.

Dr Jill Benson. Image supplied.

During the lockdown, Dr Benson was able to maintain regular appointments with community members via telehealth and says the sessions ensured “continuity of care.”

“The diabetes educator for instance commented that peoples’ diabetes was better controlled and I think it was because I was there in the community two or three times a week.

I was able to keep a closer eye on them, to liaise more consistently with the nurses to do better chronic disease management and preventative care, to have discussions with people about their diet, and smoking and exercise.

I went back in January when the border opened and we’ve been going for two days a month again since then and there’s still lots of things to do but it’s been a really good way of doing healthcare in this sort of crisis.”

Dr Benson said the majority of the patients in Tjuntjuntjara have all of their medications, investigations, discharge summaries and health summaries from Spinifex Health Service in My Health Record.

“This means that when they travel to other communities, all of this is instantly accessible. It also means that if a patient has a recall set up in another community then the health professionals there can alert the Spinifex staff if they can see the person has recently been in Tjuntjuntjara. This has been an invaluable resource to maintain continuity of care.”

Dr Benson said she hoped to see digital health continued.

“I hope the government continues this because it’s been such a good service and so fantastic for rural areas and remote Aboriginal communities.”