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February 2021

Physician talking to patients online jpeg
Northern Health emergency physician Loren Sher talks with a patient.

Australian-first virtual ED triage launched

Northern Health is the first public health service in Australia to launch virtual emergency department (ED) triage.

The service enables patients to self-present to the ED just by using their phone or laptop.

Emergency physician Loren Sher said virtual ED enabled patients to talk to emergency nurses and doctors from their home, work or even their car.

‘If a patient has a non-life-threatening emergency, they can connect virtually with our ED staff who will be able to provide medical advice,’ Dr Sher said.

‘Patients will need to have a valid Medicare card and be comfortable speaking in English, as interpreting isn’t currently available for this particular service.’

Patients register their details online and are then placed in a virtual waiting room.

When it is their turn, the triage nurse conducts an online consultation with them and advises the best course of action.

Depending on the patient’s condition, this could be a telehealth consultation with an emergency doctor or advanced practice physiotherapist.

In many cases, the team can help patients completely virtually and can organise tests and prescriptions close to their home.

In some cases, they may ask the patient to come into the ED for required treatment.

One of these patients is Doreen resident Valerie Patragoulas, whose son Jake fell off his bike recently and fractured his shoulder.

Their local GP recommended they go to hospital for an X-ray.

‘We saw the virtual ED announcement on Facebook and we have a family member who works at Northern too, who suggested we use the virtual triage for Jake.

‘We did the teleconference call and – as it was late in the afternoon and our closest X-ray centre was closed – we were advised to come into Northern’s ED and get the X-ray done.

‘It was a great experience as we were an expected case when we arrived and after a very short wait, we were taken to do an X-ray.’

The new service will benefit local GPs and acute care centres, helping GPs manage patients in the community and keeping people closer to home.

‘The program works with GPs and community health care providers to identify patients that traditionally would have been referred to ED but may be suitable for ongoing management in the community with ED consultation,’ Dr Sher said.

‘We are hoping to establish a mutual relationship where GPs can have consultations with us regarding complicated patients and we are hoping to also refer virtual triage patients to their practices for follow-up.’

Emergency department nurse unit manager Janice Fernandes said Northern Health’s triage nurses were postgraduate-trained and had unique skills to make time-sensitive clinical decisions, think critically and identify patient problems – ensuring patients get the right care at the right time.