Technology could hold the answer to COVID-19 loneliness and isolation

By Peta Pool

“Loneliness and isolation will quietly become a problem as quarantine measures increase”, predicts Associate Professor Belinda Lange, technology research lead for Flinders University’s Caring Futures Institute.

Assoc Prof Lange is an international authority on virtual reality and game-based exercise and rehabilitation. She believes that this sort of technology will play a key role in combatting loneliness and isolation and maintaining general wellbeing in this unfolding situation of the coronavirus pandemic that is sending some communities into lockdown.

Assoc Prof Lange believes technologies such as those that facilitate visible contact like video conferencing and chat tools can provide comfort to family members who may be concerned about loved ones who are in lockdown, enabling them to maintain social connection without risk of exposure to the virus.

Besides the standard video and chat tools, the immersive and interactive medium of virtual reality also provides opportunities for people to meet and congregate virtually while maintaining social distance.

Using a monitor, phone or more sophisticated headset there is a wide range of VR content and experiences available. Multi-player video gaming and shared virtual environments like Oculus and bigscreen where you can watch TV shows, attend the cinema and live events with friends in a virtual environment will help people to maintain social contact and a sense of community during a forced lockdown.

In addition to mental health and well-being, Assoc Prof Lange also believes technology will have a role to play in reducing the need for person-to-person interactions with health services.

Associate Professor Belinda Lange, technology research lead for Flinders University’s Caring Futures Institute.

“The opportunities that we have with telehealth and digital health assessments can serve to achieve the goal of slowing the rate of infection and supporting the community as a whole” she says.

The well-established SA Digital Telehealth Network has provided technology for clinicians and patients to communicate since 2012.

Australian Medical Association President, Dr Tony Bartone, says expanded access to telehealth is vital to contain COVID-19 and to protect the health of frontline doctors and their patients.

“The Government is committed to further changes to Medicare to support a comprehensive telehealth model of care, and this includes finalising the detail of further telehealth operations via phone and video by the end of this week,” Dr Bartone says.

“This commitment will see the Government co-design the best practice expansion of telehealth items for all patients, with or without COVID-19, to see any GP or other medical specialist during the COVID-19 health emergency”.

The current network in South Australia has over 400 video conferencing units in metropolitan and country health sites and is already used to deliver a range of health services such as mental health, oncology, neurology, after-hours clinical support and state-wide clinical collaboration in local and regional health networks.

Digital health, encompassing a broad range of technologies has long been a focus for the World Health Organisation (WHO) which released a set of guidelines in 2019 on ways that countries can use digital health technology to improve higher standards of health and access services to promote and protect health and wellbeing.

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