One in six remote patients are waiting at least two days to see a doctor for urgent medical care, a new Royal Flying Doctors Service survey has shown.

Four per cent of respondents have travelled more than five hours to see a doctor for a non-emergency, while one third of people named access to medical services as the most important health concern, according to the ‘Health Care Access, Mental Health, and Preventative Health; Health Priority Survey Findings for People in the Bush’.

With the premature death rate 1.6 times higher in remote Australia than in major cities, survey respondents called for government policies and expenditure to be directed towards expanding access to general medical services (13.1 per cent), specialists (10.6 per cent), GPs (4.6 per cent), hospitals (2.3 per cent), diagnostic tests (1.4 per cent), and allied health services (0.5 per cent).

Best known for emergency retrieval work, the delivery of primary healthcare services has become a 21st century priority for the RFDS, contributing to over 290,000 patient contacts for the organisation in the last year. Communications technologies have been vital in this reach, including 62,712 telehealth consultations in 2015/16.

“We’re a great believer in telehealth’s ability to overcome barriers in access to healthcare, and we hope to see its use expanded in future years,” RFDS CEO Martin Laverty told Healthcare IT News Australia.

With a waiting room of 7.13 million square kilometres, RFDS has grown into the largest aeromedical organisation in the world with a fleet of 66 aircraft, 23 airbases and 48 road patient vehicles. But the patient care possibilities provided by telehealth can dramatically extend care.

Laverty said the health system needs to get behind the technology.

“Broadband and equipment needs to be cost effective, and sufficient incentives to utilise telehealth need to be in place. This requires effort on behalf of all actors of the health system in Australia, and much of the effort needs to be led outside of governments,” he said.

The Federal Government’s NBN infrastructure expansion is also essential in connecting rural and remote areas and improving healthcare outcomes.

“Reliable broadband into rural areas is key. Always reliable broadband will inform if we can make the leap from tele- to video-health.”

According to the survey, more than half of respondents (58.3 per cent) were able to see a doctor within four hours for urgent medical care, while 15.6 per cent had to wait at least two days and 2.9 per cent were required to wait six days or more.

While the Medicare Benefits Schedule does not allow the billing of remote GP consultations to be reimbursed, the telehealth services provided by the RFDS are funded by the Commonwealth.

Calls come into the RFDS 24/7 telehealth base from individuals or health workers in remote and rural areas who need medical assistance or advice. The service also supports the aeromedical retrieval service. In most cases, patients have no access to permanent medical services and limited if any access to hospitals.