Internet blackspot forced GP to move surgery
Broadband blackspots are causing patient safety concerns for some rural GPs who cannot properly access medical records on their computer or avail of the technology which is now so much part of modern medicine.
Waterford GP Dr David Janes said he had to reluctantly end a day-long surgery he provided every week for many elderly and other rural patients at Seskinane Health Centre near Ballinamult because the internet connection he had was so poor.
The health centre is in an idyllic setting near the Comeragh mountains - but it is on the wrong side of the digital divide.
"I got around 20 minutes of a connection a week and it would switch off," he said.
He endured a snail's-pace start on his computer as he prepared to treat a room full of patients and tried to access their records.
"Patients have high expectations now and what was acceptable 50 or 60 years ago is now no longer feasible. We need to access records efficiently," he said.
Dr Janes had to move all his patients to Fourmilewater Health Centre near Ballymacarbry.
It means a 16km journey for the patients he treated at Seskinane. Not all have their own transport and some are relying on friends and neighbours to get to the surgery.
He is the only GP covering a very broad area and his patients are very grateful to have a doctor at a time when so many rural medics have decided they cannot make a sustainable living.
The broadband gap also means that some patients who may be housebound, but are living in areas with poor internet access, cannot avail of online video consultations with their GP, which are growing in popularity.
These are the patients who could benefit most from telemedicine, which allows for face-to-face consultations in their living room without having to go the surgery.
Dr Darach O'Ciardha, whose family practice in Jobstown in Tallaght, Dublin, offers the service to his own patients, said it would be particularly useful for patients who are isolated because of their medical condition or location.
"It would be an extra access point for patients with chronic illness and make them feel less isolated and improve continuity of care.
"In our system, the patient can see us and we can see the patient. If we are serious about innovations in health we have to look after isolated patients' needs," he said.
Across the wider health service, Richard Corbridge, chief information officer for the Health Service Executive, said their aim is to provide wider patient access to wifi in hospitals wards.
He said it is hoped to have connections which are strong enough to allow patients to access sites such as Netflix.
For those health staff who are lucky enough to work and live in areas with better internet speed and coverage, the plan is to provide around 30,000 of them with email and online connectivity this year.
Currently, these 30,000 staff have no 'digital identity'. Another 10,000 staff working in primary care in community settings have no information technology tools to support them.
Mr Corbridge said: "We want all our staff to be connected and to be facilitated and empowered to participate and ensure our patients and our public are the ultimate benefactors."
He said that building a better health service requires greater digital connectivity within the HSE.
Health service staff should be able to communicate more effectively, he added.