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Remote Australian community harnesses mixed reality and space connectivity to deliver better health outcomes

Bairnsdale Regional Health Service (BRHS) has piloted a first-of-its-kind telemedicine solution that is revolutionising healthcare delivery in the remote community of Dargo, Victoria. With specialist healthcare professionals largely being based in urban centres, this telemedicine solution offers exciting potential for delivering health services to geographically isolated populations around Australia and worldwide.

Developed with Microsoft partner Velrada, the solution uses Microsoft’s mixed reality technologies and Azure Space cloud connectivity to help local nurses treat patients in real-time, in collaboration with remote medical specialists.

The Dargo Bush Nursing Centre in East Gippsland, Victoria is staffed by senior nurses and managed by BRHS and plays a vital role in treating the physical and mental health of the remote community of around 100 people, nestled in the foothills of the Victorian Alps. When a patient presents to the centre with a condition that need’s medical advice, they consult general practitioners and specialists, many of which are based hundreds of kilometres away. Travelling to see these specialists comes at a significant cost to patients and their families, in the form of time away from work and properties, alongside large sums for fuel and accommodation.

Using the new telemedicine solution, nurses facilitate appointments with remote specialists via Microsoft Teams while wearing a Microsoft HoloLens mixed reality headset. The headset enables remote specialists to have an enhanced and interactive view of patients on their device, from the very same perspective as the nurse they are also talking with.

Patients can hear what specialists are saying through a speaker connected to the headset. The mixed reality environment also enables nurses and physicians to draw and annotate on the holographic screen for further instructions.

“This is a really exciting development for telemedicine – nurses can work hands-free to provide treatment or assistance during the sessions, patients can explain their symptoms directly and doctors can see what the nurses see in better detail to support clinical decision making and management for the patient,” says Dr Nic Woods, Chief Medical Officer at Microsoft Australia.

During an eight-week pilot project, nurses in Dargo conducted 12 telemedicine appointments. Half of these involved specialists in Melbourne, a 4½-hour drive away.

“The telemedicine solution is absolutely ground-breaking for healthcare in East Gippsland,” says BRHS Chief Executive Robyn Hayles. “By bridging the geographical gap between patients and specialists, we can better meet the medical needs of our diverse population while minimising disruption to their lives and livelihoods. The combination of satellite and mixed reality technologies and Microsoft’s Azure Space cloud infrastructure have taken our service to the next level of care.”

Before the pilot project, Dargo’s limited connectivity could not support the high-bandwidth connection to the cloud required for videoconferencing.

“BRHS had a local electrician install a SpaceX Starlink satellite dish at the Dargo Bush Nursing Centre to ensure fast and reliable connectivity to the cloud using Azure Space,” says Dan Hookham, Chief Innovation Officer at Velrada. “That provided the bandwidth needed for Velrada’s Mixed Reality as a Service technology, which delivered the trial telemedicine solution.”

Following the success of the trial, BRHS plans to adopt the telemedicine model at other bush nursing centres, regional health services and aged care facilities across the region.

“The things that have been learnt even from this relatively short and highly innovative pilot, have given BRHS the opportunity to scale this across the region, and help reduce the challenges of health care delivery in some of our most remote regions” says Woods. “It’s a model that other communities across Australia and around the world can replicate, and it shows how this nascent democratisation of space combined with new technologies such as mixed reality can truly benefit not only patient’s but also for regional and remote clinician’s with their ability to access GP’s, medical specialists and other care stakeholders in a more interactive and collaborative way. .”

Microsoft launched Azure Space in 2020 and has since then been working to democratise access to space through key industry partnerships and new product releases.