Kerry Rigby, PhD student, Deakin University & DELH

The umbrella term ‘telehealth[1] has received much attention in health circles and the press in recent times. Telehealth apps, telehealth services, and telehealth appointments are now more widely available as a safe way of remotely connecting patients and health professionals. However, when I think of telehealth, three notable moments in history come to mind.

The most obvious illustration is right in front of our eyes, for people who still use paper (or polymer) money. The Australian $20 bill visually shows a significant time in history, around 90 years ago, when Reverend John Flynn began the first Australian telehealth service using wireless radio and aerial services to provide health services to people in outback Australia.

Reverend John Flynn on the Australian $20 banknote. (Image credit: Reserve Bank of Australia)

This notable banknote, first printed in 1994 and updated in 2016, features John Flynn with the Victory aeroplane, and an essential piece of equipment around the late 1920s/1930s – a pedal powered radio receiver for transmitting messages between services and people in need. If you happen to have an older $20 note, a chart of the human body and a camel patrol used for land travel are also illustrated.

Telehealth has been vital to assist in extreme situations as these next two cases demonstrate:

In 1998, Dr Jerri Nielson was stationed in Antarctica for the dark, southern winter

Dr Jerri Nielsen at South Pole. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

when she noticed a breast lump. With medical advice she received by email via satellite, she performed a biopsy on herself, and then self-administered chemotherapy from supplies that were parachuted to her at the South Pole. This story was memorable for me at the time for three reasons. The extreme remoteness and challenging cold weather conditions at the location; the extraordinary courage and determination that would be required to treat yourself; and the use of email (only 22 years ago) as the primary communication tool in this location, to facilitate the testing and treatment of breast cancer.

Thai football team cave rescue. (Image credit: Reuters)

A more recent and highly mediatised telehealth story occurred in 2018 in Thailand where members of a junior football team and their assistant coach became trapped inside a cave with rising floodwaters. A command and medical centre was set up in an underground cave chamber, and the quest was to find and rescue the boys. A video camera famously recorded the telehealth moment of the first interaction when the boys were finally found, identified, and received treatment in the cave for hypothermia and skin grazes. An incredibly complex rescue mission was launched and all the boys were brought to safety. Sadly, though, one of the cave divers died during the rescue mission. Having briefly experienced caving as a recreational activity, I truly appreciate how difficult this rescue would have been.

From the earliest days of telehealth to current COVID-19 times, digital systems and devices are ever-present and normalised tools in health and aged care workplaces. If we look backwards and forwards, staff familiarity with digital systems and devices is a key ingredient to ensuring safe and proficient use. This is where my research begins as I seek to understand the ways nurses and direct care staff become familiar with an increasing array of health and care technologies in aged care workplaces.

Through my PhD studentship with the ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub for Digital Enhanced Living, the Deakin University School of Nursing and Midwifery, and my supervisory team, I have a great opportunity to study this area in detail. I hope that my research study will also be able to open up and add a lot more knowledge to this field.   


Written by:
Kerry Rigby
ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub for Digital Enhanced Living PhD scholarship recipient
School of Nursing and Midwifery, Deakin University
NB: The author reserves the right to showcase/publish this blog piece elsewhere and/or in a different medium.

Editorial review by:
Dr Tanya Petrovich, Partner Investigator
Kevin Hoon, Hub Manager

[1] Telehealth – the provision of healthcare remotely by means of telecommunications technology.