Sunday 8 December 2019

Patient care is compromised by slow broadband

Health Minister Simon Harris
Health Minister Simon Harris
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

The care of some patients attending hospitals in parts of the country with slow broadband is coming under increasing pressure as doctors struggle to run high-tech equipment.

The digital divide between urban and rural areas means several hospitals are left with lagging internet speeds.

This can delay ward rounds as even basic medical back-up, such as accessing patient blood tests, becomes protracted.

In some instances, doctors who are providing out-of-hours services and making time-critical decisions, can face difficulty logging into hospital systems to read vital medical information.

Dr Brian Carey, a geriatrician at Bantry Hospital, in Cork, warned yesterday that doctors in rural hospitals are being "severely compromised" in what they can do because of outdated technology infrastructure.

"My day-to-day ward rounds and outpatient clinics are slowed down," he said.

"I could see more patients if I had a faster system. Accessing basic blood results or scans is terribly slow."

He said on his hospital's computer system in west Cork, it is impossible for multiple members of staff to remain logged on for extended periods of time.

"I can be [automatically] logged out if I go away for a few minutes."

He must then go through the process of logging on again.

Advances in technology mean Dr Carey can access scans of his patients in Cork University Hospital.

However, if the system is busy "it takes ages to download the film. Sometimes you just have to leave it and come back later".

Dr Carey said it is impossible for him to access a scan of a stroke patient at his home.

If this was possible it would save considerable time.

"My broadband speed at home is just three megabytes," he said.

Instead he has to drive into the hospital to examine the patient.

"I live very near the hospital but you are talking about treatment that is extremely time-sensitive. The patient is losing out for every minute," he added.

The speed in the hospital is just 10 megabytes, although it should be at least 30 megabytes.

Dr Carey's concern was raised by Fianna Fáil TD for Cork South-West Margaret Murphy O'Mahony, who brought it to the attention of Health Minister Simon Harris and HSE chief Tony O'Brien at the Oireachtas health committee.

In response, the HSE said the hospital is serviced by two high-speed optical figure connections to core HSE infrastructure and services.

It said it hopes there would be "significant increases in activity for the foreseeable future" and this is being monitored.

As new services come on stream adjustments are made, the HSE said.

Dr Ronan Collins, director of stroke services at Tallaght Hospital, who was involved in the rollout of the telemedicine network for the HSE, said: "Having a good broadband structure is important for modern healthcare.

"In time-dependant medical decisions such as stroke, the faster the decision is made the better the outcome.

"Better broadband facilitates faster decision-making," he added.

Good software applications can improve the upload and download capabilities of doctors who are reading scans remotely, he said.

Doctors in training in some of the hospitals in areas of slow broadband are also losing out.

Ideally, they should have good access to video conferencing, but slow internet speeds create obstacles to this running smoothly.

Dr Carey said that he likened the necessity to provide better coverage of speedier broadband to the rollout of the electricity network in previous generations.

It was not fair to disadvantage people because of location.

Irish Independent

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