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Monday, 10 March 2014 07:28

OPINION: Turnbull blinded by unhealthy obsession

By Michelle Rowland

Malcolm Turnbull missed out on a spot at the Adelaide Fringe Festival this year. Instead, on four occasions over the last two weeks, the Minister for Communications has used Question Time as a vehicle to show off his comedy routine.  While it may give his backbench a boost, Turnbull’s obsession with his predecessor Minister diminishes important issues confronting the nation.

“There are some limitations to telehealth services,” the Minister said in response to a question on broadband-enabled telehealth.  “There are some conditions that are arguably incurable and inaccessible,” he continued.

Was he referring to home teleconsultations using high definition video?  Improved diabetes management?  Perhaps in-home monitoring of older patients to detect and quickly address any deterioration in their condition?  Cancer?  Dementia?

No, the Minister was of course referring to “Conrovianism.”

Not only is his one-joke routine tired, it demonstrates a total lack of commitment to delivering services that will be vital if Australia wants to compete into the future; and to address some of the greatest challenges we face in society, including our ageing population and the ongoing disparity between rural and metropolitan services - particularly equitable delivery of health services.

His silence on its benefits would lead you to conclude that he supports Tony Abbott’s view that ubiquitous broadband, “is essentially a video entertainment system.”[i]

Turnbull’s performance on ABC’s Q&A last year would also lead you to believe this.  Observe his comments in a debate with ABC technology writer, Nick Ross:

NICK ROSS, ABC: …the point I am making is really that one of the biggest benefits of the NBN is telehealth … is going to save billions every single year. It’s already saving tens of millions in trial rollouts around Australia –

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well that is just absolute nonsense. I don’t know where you get this stuff from.


As to the question of where “this stuff” comes from, I suggest the Minister try building on any one of the detailed studies undertaken by NICTA; the modelling undertaken by Access Economics on the health, social and economically quantifiable benefits of telehealth services for aged care and veterans; or the digital region initiatives for specific conditions such as diabetes.

I suspect he won’t. Time is better spent warming up his Question Time gags.

For the rest of us, we know that healthcare does not only happen in a hospital, and aged care need not only be provided in a nursing home.  The key to this is high-speed, highest quality, lowest latency broadband-enabled telehealth.

By 2050 the proportion of Australians over 65 years of age is projected to increase to around 22.6% of the population.  By 2050, real health spending on those aged over 65 years is expected to increase seven-fold; and for those aged over 85 years, 12-fold.

We could detect the trend in these figures more than a decade ago.  It’s a pity the Howard Government, of which the Minister was a senior figure, did nothing about it.

And as for the current backbench of rural and regional MPs who slap their thighs on cue to Turnbull’s theatrics, I will do the same when you need to explain to your constituents that you traded away their equivalent wholesale pricing for the laughs.  Oh, the hilarity, when they find out they’ll never get the remote health service delivery you promised them.

Fibre-to-the-home delivery of the highest speed, quality and affordability will be a critical foundation for a sustainable health and aged-care system.  It will allow elderly Australians to live better and for longer in their own homes with fewer hospital admissions and reduced pressure on health budgets.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the Minister does not confront these policy issues in a serious way.  His Multi-Technology Mix (MTM) model will not provide a medical-grade, reliable connection to each home, meaning Australians will not be able to utilise these services into the future.  Furthermore, it is an inequitable model because it is based on the false premise of where there is existing infrastructure, no such further investment is necessary.  Make do with what you have.  Focus on the download, not the upload.

In Parliament House this week the One In Four Lives White Paper was launched, outlining how government and industry can make the most of telehealth in Australia.  These representatives of the health care sector called on government to devise a national telehealth program, particularly focused on regional and remote communities, noting results from a United Kingdom trial of telehealth which resulted in a 15% fall in emergency department visits.

It was no surprise that the Minister for Communications made no mention of it.  When you have pantomimes to rehearse, there is little time for policy consideration.

Michelle Rowland is the Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications and Member for Greenway

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