Telehealth consultations are crucial in combating the coronavirus, but doctors and industry experts say the federal government isn’t doing enough to make them widely available.
On Wednesday, the government announced that some telehealth items would be temporarily listed on the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS).
As of Friday, government-subsidised video and telephone consultations with doctors are available exclusively to coronavirus patients and vulnerable groups for the next six months.
But doctors say the movedoesn’t go far enough, and have called on the government to make telehealth consultations available to everyone under Medicare.
On Friday, the Australian Medical Association said telehealth consultations should be offered to all patients “to free up GP waiting rooms”.
— AMA Media (@ama_media) March 13, 2020
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners also urged the government to “significantly expand” the availability of telephone consultations.
“The new MBS item appears to be narrow in scope and only apply to people with a confirmed case of COVID-19 or those in isolation, along with a range of vulnerable groups such as older people,” college president Dr Harry Nespolon said.
“Ideally, it would apply to anyone with cold or flu like symptoms who is concerned they might have COVID-19.
“Given the virus is escalating, I urge the federal government to clarify this measure and significantly expand its scope.
Facilitating more telephone consultations makes sense rather than having sick people turn up in a crowded GP clinic waiting room where they can spread the virus to others.”
Dr Nespolon said telephone consultations are “a technology that everyone has, so it can be rolled out immediately without delay”.
“It’s straightforward, it’s accessible for all people in the community and it will help in combating COVID-19.”
Government afraid of telehealth ‘cost explosion’
Dr Silvia Pfeiffer, chief executive of Australian telehealth software company Coviu, said the government is dragging its feet on making telehealth widely available because they believe it will prove overwhelmingly popular and result in a “cost explosion”.
“Even now with the items that are coming in, the government are taking very careful steps to limit their exposure because they are very, very afraid that as soon as they open up these items to everyone, everyone will just be taking telehealth from their phone and from their home,” Dr Pfeiffer said.
“So the government is approaching this pandemic with a careful eye towards telehealth.
But they are also very much aware that telehealth is the only way to keep sick people at home and to keep them away from people who are not impacted. “
Last year, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt boasted that “in the eight years to June 30, 2019, the Liberal National government has funded more than 1 million telehealth episodes of care, representing an investment of $155.9 million in the health of Australians living in regional areas”.
However, telehealth sessions still account for less than 1 per cent of total GP consultations per year.
Australia is “a very well developed country with our healthcare system” and everyone “relies on the fact that healthcare is free in this country, or at least very largely subsidised by the government”, Dr Pfeiffer said.
“However, we have not had any general purpose telehealth items for GPs listed on the MBS. That has not happened.”
Australia lags behind China on telehealth
Telehealth technology has played a key role in keeping people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet Australia is lagging behind other countries, including China and South Korea, that have used it to combat the virus, Dr Pfeiffer said.
Telehealth is “one of the best ways to get it under control”, she said.
It’s the cheapest way to ensure we’re not going to end up in a terrible situation where everyone is catching the virus from everyone else.”
In China, telehealth is “basically the only way to see a doctor”, Dr Pfeiffer said.
“Because people are staying in their homes, they’re not supposed to go out … people have switched to seeing doctors online now.”
The coronavirus pandemic will likely cause uptake of telehealth to “explode across the world”, Dr Pfeiffer said.
“It should be a default mode and possibility for every patient to be able to see a clinician via video.”