NBN cost analysis should focus on rural health services

There is a raging debate amongst Liberals and the minority-controlled Labor government about whether or not to go ahead with the National Broadband Network (NBN). Recently Malcolm Turnbull, Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband, demanded a true cost and worth analysis for the $43 billion nation-building infrastructure project from Prime Minister Julia Gillard and this sentiment has been echoed by several leading Australian business leaders.

However, many proponents of the NBN believe the value of the broadband network is intangible and won’t be fully known until it is implemented. Lee Thomas, the Australian Nursing Federation's federal secretary, recently said, “Health access is undoubtedly the most essential aspect of this technology."

Ms Thomas feels a cost-benefit analysis of the NBN needs to look at how the fibre optic high-speed broadband connection promised to 93% of all Australians will help the community, especially in the important area of rural medical facilities. "It is time the rural-urban health divide is addressed," Ms Thomas said.

"We need creative workforce solutions so that the 30 per cent of Australians who live remotely can access better treatment. Fast broadband access across Australia will help achieve this," she said.

The concept is to be able to provide an online medical service where doctors, nurses, midwives and other health professionals can be reached via a super-fast broadband connection in order for patients to receive a face-to-face video webcam consultation.

Using fast video connections via optical fibre, mobile wireless, or improved satellite technologies, “The health professional can see the patient and therefore advise them on the best course of action," Ms Thomas said.

Much of the NBN debate had centred on consumer-based issues like having the ability to watch online TV, or download movies and music, but Ms Thomas says the issue should be focussed more on how the wellbeing of the general Australian community could be benefited by the technology.

Her belief is if the cost analysis takes into account potential health improvements, it will show massive potential for rural and regional patients who currently don’t have proper access to medical facilities.

"For example, connecting Aboriginal health workers and nurses or nurse practitioners with other health professionals will create a network of care focused on patient needs."

As well as improving indigenous health standards, maternity and birthing care is another major topic on the health agenda, as numerous medical services have recently closed across Australia. "It's not the total solution, but technological innovations will increase healthcare consultation for women who don't currently have local access and that is a very positive step," Ms Thomas said.

"Protecting the safety of pregnant women in rural and remote areas, offering patients access to nurses, midwives and other health professionals will assist them to manage their healthcare much better than they are able to today, without this inequality."

With people opposed to the NBN focussing on the project as a waste of taxpayers’ money, the medical debate based around bringing an equitable service to Australians in the Bush could be a major reason to validate going ahead with the high-speed NBN.