Transitioning our services to Telecare throughout COVID-19

The challenge of providing developmental health services to vulnerable children in rural and remote Australia has been at the core of Royal Far West’s work for decades. As well as children and families visiting our Centre for Country Kids at Manly, over the years we have used planes, trains and a mighty big bus to reach out to families and communities.  

It was our decision to start using technology that has been a game changer for  kids in rural communities. From Lord Howe Island in the east to the Kimberley Valley in remote Western Australia, we deliver 500 sessions a  week of Speech Pathology or Occupational Therapy via our Telecare for Kids program. Kids love speaking to the ‘lady on the computer’, and external research validates that the children progress as quickly or faster than the more traditional face-to-face service delivery.

COVID-19 caused the cancellation of our outreach services and Telecare services delivered to schools, presenting us with the challenge of how best to use technology to continue to reach the developmentally vulnerable country children who need our services. I’m delighted to report that our team has worked incredibly hard to innovate our service delivery to become totally virtual, so children can now receive the help they need in their homes. And we have had some huge wins.

We are extremely grateful to all our funders who have, without exception, shifted with us, as they have heard of our plans to continue to meet the needs of these children and families. Our team is now operating at 80 per cent of normal service levels from our homes, which has meant that disadvantaged and vulnerable country kids and families have not missed out on the support they need to thrive.

The most meaningful innovation for us has been trialling the conversion of our flagship Paediatric Developmental Program into a virtual multi-disciplinary assessment and diagnosis service.

This is no easy task as it involves the conversion of Paediatrics, Psychiatry, Allied Health and Social Work into a virtual experience for families. This normally takes a week in our Centre for Country Kids, involving many sessions and cross discipline consultation to provide an assessment for a child with very complex developmental needs. This type of collaborative expertise does not exist in any country area.

The changes in workplaces created by COVID-19 may enable us to fast track the adoption of telehealth for children with very complex needs. We will be assessing the efficacy of this model both online and offline with a cohort of our families from remote areas of NSW.

Our after-school recreation program has also shifted to an online format, where children have the opportunity to connect with peers experiencing similar issues within a supportive online environment. We have also run virtual ‘camps’ for children with disabilities.

Feedback from families has been positive. One family said, ‘Thank you so much RFW recreation team, we are so grateful for the chance to connect with buddies we met from camp, we both learnt a lot and had lots of fun participating in the online REC program at such a difficult time, it really put a smile on our faces to have such great support’.

So how does our future look? Early signs show a much greater component of virtual delivery and, in some cases, complete delivery through virtual modalities. This will enable us to support more children and remove some barriers of access to services, leading to more equity of service provision for country kids, expediting pathways to care, and thereby improving life trajectories for the most vulnerable children in rural and remote areas.

We thank you for your interest and support and look forward to keeping you informed as we continue on this journey.


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