A ground-breaking virtual teaching clinic hosted recently by the University of Wollongong has the potential to change the way healthcare is taught and practised in rural areas, says the trial's project leader Professor Andrew Bonney.
Utilising technology more often used by video gamers and for webcasts, the high-definition interactive session brought together Graduate School of Medicine students from UOW's Wollongong and Shoalhaven campuses as well as students from the University of New England in Armidale to observe a psychiatric consultation.
"Video conferencing or even webinars are not new, of course, but what is new is that we were trying to make it a realistic representation of a consultation," Prof Bonney said.
"We tried to make it as realistic as possible so the student feels like they are there in the room at the moment."
The trial used an existing broadband connection and software costing less than a $1000.
"Interestingly, the technology for high quality video streaming is all there and available, it just doesn't seem to be used for educational purposes very much," Prof Bonney said.
"It gets used for webcasting of live events and by people interested in online gaming, so we were able to use off-the-shelf technology along with camera and sound gear we had here at the university."
The project is funded through the NBN-Enabled Education and Skills Services Program and Prof Bonney said the clinics would not be possible without access to high-speed broadband.
"If there are pauses, if there are breaks, if there are delays then you lose that ability to be caught up in the moment, to suspend disbelief and get immersed in the situation," he said.
"So having [high-speed broadband] is really important for us, not only for how fluid the session is, but we're hoping we can do some things around dermatology and skin surgery and use of ultrasound and we will need really high quality images to be able to do that."
Prof Bonney said virtual clinics would complement traditional teaching methods rather than radically overhauling the way medical students were taught.
"It's a really useful addition.
"I don't think it can in any way replace the need for students to engage with patients themselves or to have one-to-one face-to-face teaching, but we can't, for example, fit 20, 30, 40 students in a psychiatrist's office and have them watch a consultation."
It may also encourage young doctors to stay in rural areas.
"By giving rural and remote practitioners access to this technology and the new level of expertise and additional support it brings, we can help retain doctors in rural Australia," Prof Bonney said.