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Wearable tech – transforming healthcare in remote areas

Remote Australia

In this vast land of ours, many people live and work away from cities, and therefore a long distance from mainstream medical facilities. Seven million Australians, or 28% of the population, live in rural and remote areas – on mining sites, oil rigs, farms, in townships and indigenous communities.

The impact on health

Living at a remove from city life has its upsides, but when it comes to health, those in rural and remote Australia are at a disadvantage. Studies show that, compared with their counterparts in metropolitan Australia, they have poorer health, increased risk of disease and a shorter average lifespan.

The causes of health disadvantage

This higher level of health risk has a number of causes, including lifestyle differences, a higher proportion of economic and educational disadvantage and a difficulty in accessing fresh food.

One example is Type 2 diabetes. The rate of diabetes is 1.3 times higher in remote areas than in cities, 2.9 times higher in indigenous populations and 1.9 times higher in disadvantaged areas.

The health risks to remote populations are further exacerbated by the distance between these communities and their nearest healthcare facility, and sometimes being cut off altogether from support by natural disasters such as floods and fires. Being so far from medical facilities means that those in remote areas often miss out on the preventative and predictive healthcare monitoring that their fellow Australians in cities take for granted and undergo on a regular basis.

Monitoring the vital signs  

Monitoring of the body’s vital signs – respiratory rate, oxygen saturation, temperature, blood pressure and heart rate – is an essential element of healthcare. That’s because some health problems manifest through a gradual decline. For example, cardiac arrest is often preceded by abnormalities in vital signs, before the patient has even noticed anything wrong. Monitoring can spot the clinical decline and allow preventative action.

Monitoring helps those with an underlying condition, allowing the medical practitioner to check on whether it is stable or declining. For the healthy, monitoring is just as useful, with changes or patterns acting as a flag that enables intervention to prevent or slow the progress of a disease. When patients are monitored over time, medical practitioners can spot patterns of deterioration and sound the alert early, and proactively engage the right level of care and treatment. Without monitoring, the patient and doctor may only realise that something is wrong when it becomes an emergency.

Wearable monitoring technology

For those in remote communities, who are not regularly seeing a GP or visiting a hospital, monitoring of vital signs is impacted. But medical technology has the answer, in the form of wearable medical devices.

These are small devices that the patient wears – no more obtrusively than a Fitbit or smart watch – and which monitor their vital signs continuously.  The devices are non-invasive, need no specialist fitting and can be simply sent out to the patient. The data they collect is sent digitally to the medical practitioner, making monitoring possible even when there are thousands of miles between the patient and the doctor.

Continuous monitoring enables the medical practitioner to determine an Early Warning Score (EWS) or Modified Early Warning Score (MEWS) for the patient. An EWS is a standardised assessment of a patient’s degree of illness, based on the vital signs and their pattern over time. A MEWS is an EWS assessment based on a set of criteria specific to a certain illness – for example, diabetes, lung disease or a heart condition.

The EWS/MEWS allows the practitioner to proactively intervene with medication or other treatment, including getting the patient to a hospital.

Transforming healthcare for remote Australians

Wearable monitoring technology has immense benefits for those in rural and remote communities, and for the medical system that cares for them:

  • The medical practitioner has a full and up to date view of the patient’s vital signs, which they can use when doing a telehealth consult. This means they can provide better advice on prevention.
  • Medical practitioners reading the vital signs can make earlier interventions with treatments that avoid hospitalisation.
  • The EWS/MEWS means that the clinician can identify a declining condition that requires in-person or in-patient treatment, and can make the arrangements to have the patient promptly transferred to hospital. This is particularly important for remote communities, where the only option to be flown out.
  • Hospitals and medical facilities can work far more effectively if they are treating patients before the situation becomes an emergency.
  • With early intervention and admission to hospital, there is a greater chance of a positive outcome for the patient.

Wearable technology brings continuous vital signs monitoring to any patient that requires it, without a hospital stay or a GP visit. It’s transforming the medical care of Australians in rural and remote communities and helping to close the gap in healthcare outcomes.

By Shawn Wigham

May 2023

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