Digital solution offers virtual emergency care

In an Australian first, La Trobe researchers have collaborated with Northern Health to pilot a virtual emergency department

In an Australian first, La Trobe researchers have collaborated with Northern Health to pilot a virtual emergency department that offers a triage service to patients at home, as well as virtual consultation with GPs in the northern suburbs.

Northern Health is the first public health service in Australia to launch Virtual Emergency Department (ED) Triage. The service commenced 1 October, 2020 for patients living in Northern Health’s catchment area, and enables patients to self-present to the ED just by using their phone or laptop.

Dr Loren Sher, Head of Paediatric Emergency at Northern Health, says the project was developed in response to COVID-19, but also addresses the increasing demand for emergency care.

“Northern Health’s emergency department is the busiest in Melbourne,” she says. “As the community has grown, so have the number of hospital presentations. This can lead to access blockages, where patients have to wait for prolonged periods of time for assistance.”

And while emergency room presentations have dropped during the pandemic, the requirements for personal protective equipment and the need to view every case through a ‘COVID lens’ – including establishing designated areas for COVID patients – has added additional complexity to an already challenging environment.

The solution: a virtual emergency department that allows patients to access immediate medical advice from home.

The new service will also benefit local GPs and acute care centres, helping GPs manage patients in the community, and keeping people closer to home.

La Trobe University researchers, led by Professor James Boyd, have provided the digital health expertise, working with the Northern Health team to develop and build a solution that allows patients to access emergency services via the hospital website.

“We researched platforms, built the registration process, and ensured that processes and protocols fit emergency department and Northern Health requirements,” says Professor Boyd.

“In addition to providing care, the new platform allows us to follow patients from the first triage consult right through their health journey. We can determine the efficiency and effectiveness of the health service, while also offering the patient security, accessibility and safety.”

So, how does it work?

“After registration, patients receive access to a virtual waiting room and a triage nurse, who determines if the person needs to present to the emergency room or receive a telehealth consult,” says Dr Sher. “We may be able to help the patient virtually or arrange for their presentation at an outpatient or specialist clinic. Emergency department admissions can also be coordinated.”

“It fast-tracks patients and, in many cases, allows us to bypass the emergency department.”

La Trobe University’s pilot study of the project, which began in October 2020, will be completed this week, with the virtual triage service continuing to successfully operate at Northern Hospital.

“COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to make a transformative leap in telehealth and digital health more generally,” says Professor Boyd. “In this case, we either build bigger emergency departments, or we use technology to find another solution.”

“We hope that virtual triage will lead to a new way of delivering emergency care.”

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