Millions of Australians will be able to continue talking to their doctor virtually, with the federal government set to extend financial support for telehealth services until December 31.
It means anyone seeking support from their GP, allied health provider or specialist will be able to do so via the phone or video conference.
This includes mental health and midwife appointments, as well as nurse practitioner check-ups.
Telehealth was set up to virtually connect people in regional areas to medical specialists in the city so they did not have to travel hours for appointments.
But during the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government injected billions of dollars into the system to allow anyone to book a phone consult or video conference appointment.
There was a large uptake, with more than 54 million telehealth services completed between March 13, 2020 and March 31, 2021.
About 13.5 million patients took advantage of the scheme, costing the government $2.8 billion in Medicare benefits.
Federal funding to allow all people access to telehealth services was due to end on June 30, and medical specialists had raised concerns about its future.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the extension is a recognition by government that telehealth has played an important role in supporting many people over the past year.
“The extensions will ensure that Australians can continue to see their GP, renew scripts and seek mental health support from the safety of their own home,” he said.
Benefits outweigh any costs
The federal government has not put a figure on how much it will cost to continue offering telehealth services to all patients until the end of the year, but the details are expected to be outlined in the budget in May.
Medical specialists have argued the benefits outweigh the costs and Black Dog Institute acting director Professor Sam Harvey said allowing all patients access to telehealth provides essential flexibility.
“We want patients to have it as an option,” he said.
“The end cost is the same, whether it is face to face or telehealth.
“The only net cost that comes is if it allows more people to seek help, then obviously that will mean more consultations are happening.”
The mental health sector is hopeful the government will go one step further and make telehealth services for all patients permanent.
Professor Harvey pointed to a review by the Productivity Commission into mental health that recommended telehealth services should be permanent for anyone who seeks psychological therapy or psychiatric treatment – regardless of where they live.
“It is rare when you are dealing with complex areas like mental health care reform to find such a unanimous voice about this issue,” he said.
“We’ve got the economists who wrote the productivity report saying that this is something that should be made permanent. We’ve got mental health professionals saying it. It just seems common sense.”
Mr Hunt has not ruled out further support.
“The government continues to work with peak bodies to co-design permanent post pandemic telehealth as part of broader primary care reforms to modernise Medicare and provide flexibility of access to primary and allied healthcare services,” he said.