Royal Far West says Telecare can match face-to-face healthcare

Royal Far West occupational therapist Billie Newton doing a Telecare session with a child in Cobar. Royal Far West says its clinicians work hard to make their online sessions just as engaging as their face-to-face programs.
Royal Far West occupational therapist Billie Newton doing a Telecare session with a child in Cobar. Royal Far West says its clinicians work hard to make their online sessions just as engaging as their face-to-face programs.

The world is scrambling to adapt to communicating through a screen, but for Australian charity Royal Far West it's nothing new.

Royal Far West offers healthcare, including occupational therapy, speech therapy and clinical psychology among other services, to rural and regional kids.

Royal Far West business director Jacqui Emery said even before the COVID-19 crisis they had been delivering up to 500 healthcare sessions a week via telehealth to children across country NSW, Queensland and even into a remote community in the Kimberley, WA.

"Telehealth, or Telecare as we call it, is a service that's been growing in great demand in recent years," Ms Emery said.

"A lot of that is down to the fact that families living in rural and remote areas can't easily access face-to-face services on the ground."

Ms Emery said they first trialed telehealth in a speech therapy pilot in Gladstone, Qld, in 2014.

"We were amazed at how successful it was, with the kind of digital natives that children are these days, they adapt really well to the screen," Ms Emery said.

She said the results were absolutely as good as face-to-face sessions, clinicians succeeding in making them as engaging as possible.

"One little boy ran into his school office and said 'I want to see the lady in the TV'," Ms Emery said.

"I can't underestimate our clinicians and how wonderful they are with working with children.

"It's not just a matter of sitting there and talking to someone on the other end of a phone.

"These programs are gamified, for example our clinicians might play a game of Snakes and Ladders remotely using Telecare, so they're checking on children's fine motor skills."

Royal Far West occupational therapist Billie Newton said Telecare allowed her to be creative and resourceful in helping parents/carers find therapy tools and ideas in the environment around them.

"It has been a wonderful surprise to see how engaged children, parents/carers and teachers are over Telecare," Ms Newton said.

Ms Newton said making a 'body map' was one example of activities she had done in a Telecare session to help a child connect to their emotions and sensations.

"We were trialling different sensory experiences using the gym ball and drawing the sensations and feelings on our 'body map,'" Ms Newton said.

"We then brainstormed if the sensations gave us energy, made us calm, or made us feel uncomfortable.

"These ideas help us to identify how best to support this child to feel regulated and calm throughout the day."

Scaling up of online services

Despite being pioneers in providing telehealth services, COVID-19 has forced Royal Far West to undergo a major scaling-up of their online services, with their traditionally face-to-face programs being adapted quickly for online.

"Royal Far West offers a program at our Manly headquarters called the Pediatric Developmental Program, it's for children with complex developmental health needs," Ms Emery said.

"That is a face-to-face service but given COVID-19 we don't have families travelling down to us in Manly (Sydney).

"However, we're working really hard to innovate and work out how to do a very complex, multi-disciplinary diagnosis and assessment process remotely."

The Healthy Kids Bus Stop service, which saw clinicians travel to regional areas to do developmental screenings for three to five-year-olds, has already been adapted for online.

As has the immersion component of Royal Far West's Windmill program for children with NDIS plans.

Ms Emery said many of their clinicians had been redeployed to work on developing their previously face-to-face programs for Telecare.

"Even the marketing and fundraising team is being redeployed into the Telecare co-ordination team, taking calls and inquiries from interested families," she said.

"We really need to be ramping up right now, what we need as a charity is some support to continue to fund the clinicians to come offline from delivering services, to develop these new models that will get these programs out to more country kids.

"We're there to support country families and we hope we can do that more than ever in this climate."

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