Rural GP goes digital to promote health nationally
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Rural GP goes digital to promote health nationally

Rural GP Mitchell Tanner is following the career path he plotted out back at school. After studying at the University of Newcastle, he completed his internship at Maitland Hospital and started practising, in 2011, in Singleton. "It's the town I've grown up in, the town that I always intended to work and live in," he says.

This may have been where his career story ends: a doctor experiencing the challenges and rewards of looking after many people he knew well before he started his medical career. But, thanks to the wonders of digital technology, he's added another strand to his career and taken his dedication to healthcare well beyond his Hunter Valley hometown.

Mitchell Tanner co-founder of a national telehealth platform for STI screening, in his Singlelton GP surgery.

Mitchell Tanner co-founder of a national telehealth platform for STI screening, in his Singlelton GP surgery.Credit:Elise Pfeiffer

Dr Tanner co-founded telehealth platform Stigma Health in December 2016. The platform allows people to be screened for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) — minus the awkward face-to-face consultation..

Patients answer questions online and receive a pathology request form securely via the MediRecords App. The tests are done at a pathology lab chosen by the patient and the results sent to Dr Tanner, who reviews the results and notifies the patient.

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Dr Tanner credits business development manager and co-founder James Sneddon, who "reached out to him through some rugby connections", for coming up with the initial idea.

It was an idea that sparked his interest, since he's seen the devastation that can result from untreated STIs. "I see women who, unfortunately, have fertility problems likely due to previous chlamydia infections. Rather than a simple journey to conception and pregnancy, their journey is complicated with fertility specialists." Chlamydia can be treated with a one-off antibiotic treatment but, left untreated, can lead to infertility in females and males. Most people with chlamydia experience no symptoms, which is why regular screening is critical, explains Dr Tanner.

While annual screening for all sexually active young Australians is recommended, only a small percentage of this group follow the advice: "We know from the Kirby Institute's 2016 Annual Surveillance Report that only 15 per cent of Australians aged between 15 and 29 were tested for chlamydia in 2015." Embarrassment, fear of medical staff's attitudes, and time pressures are some of the known barriers to STI testing, says Dr Tanner, and this is what makes the area particularly suited to telehealth.

Despite the clear need for a new approach to STI testing, it was a long road from initial idea to launch for Stigma Health. Extensive consultation and work was involved in overcoming technological barriers and getting the service across the line with medical indemnity insurers and regulatory bodies. Specific measures were required to ensure proper patient care, especially in offering HIV testing.

However, Dr Tanner sees a clear future for telehealth as "niche areas of medicine that can be done via telehealth successfully and appropriately" are identified.

The tide may also start to turn as other digital medicine tools gain traction, including My Health Record. This federal government initiative allows important health information like allergies and current medications to be stored digitally and accessed by appropriate medical staff in certain circumstances such as accidents or emergencies.

"My Health Record is a brilliant idea and it's something I'm promoting heavily to my patients. I suppose some of the challenges that have stopped My Health Record taking off more quickly may be concerns over privacy and the functionality of the cloud and website. But it could be the most important area where telehealth and the internet can improve people's health."

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