Mount Isa, Queensland, a remote mining area in Australia. Photo credit: Brent Clark via Photopin (cc)

Mount Isa, Queensland, a remote mining area in Australia.
Photo credit: Brent Clark via Photopin (cc)

More than half of the world’s population lives in or near a major city, where getting medical care quickly and easily is nearly taken for granted. Not so for people living in remote areas, where the nearest medical specialist could be hundreds of miles away.

That’s the case for the roughly 22,000 people living in Mount Isa, an arid mining district in Queensland, Australia. While Mount Isa has an 80-bed general purpose hospital, its nearest cancer treatment center is 560 miles away, in the coastal city of Townsville.

To try and solve this problem, doctors at the Townsville Cancer Centre recently installed videoconferencing units in Mount Isa, and used them to conduct 605 teleoncology sessions with 147 patients. Although the new telemedicine program cost roughly $410,000 to install and run, the Cancer Centre estimates it ultimately saved $705,000 in travel expenses.

“Seeing patients urgently by means of videoconferencing and advising the necessary management plan to local medical services avoided aeromedical retrieval of patients from satellite sites to the tertiary center, thus representing further savings,” the report’s authors wrote in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Costs included one-time equipment purchases, maintenance costs, and the hiring of part-time staff to coordinate the program in Mount Isa.

The Townsville Cancer Centre said the new telemedicine program’s costs would have to rise 72 percent to negate the impact of the travel savings.

The benefits of telemedicine are not restricted to saving travel costs in extremely remote locations. A separate study conducted by researchers at UC Davis found the quality of care improves when doctors are able to consult face-to-face with colleagues in other parts of the country.

The same study found that video consultations lasted longer than those conducted by voice only, with doctors asking more questions of patients, and giving out more recommendations.