All Australians will have access to telehealth consultations with GPs, specialists, and mental health practitioners from next week, the government has said.
Australia will have “whole-of-population telehealth”, with Medicare to cover phone and video mental health, allied health and primary health consultations, Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Tuesday.
The government is looking to make telehealth universally available from Monday, Mr Hunt told reporters in Canberra.
We are moving to whole-of-population telehealth so every Australian will have access to that,’’ Mr Hunt said.
Doctors have been lobbying for more telehealth items to be added to the Medicare Benefits Schedule to help protect health workers and the general public from the coronavirus.
Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone said expanded access to telehealth is vital for limiting the spread of COVID-19.
The government is working with doctors and has committed to supporting a comprehensive telehealth model of care, Dr Bartone said.
“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,” Dr Bartone said.
Telehealth services are currently restricted to patients and doctors that are vulnerable to COVID-19.
The way you visit your doctor is about to change. New and expanded telehealth will make it possible for you to phone or video chat with your GP and specialist #COVID_19 #medtwitter #coronavirsus https://t.co/YUgSAyHprK pic.twitter.com/phfZR8Qg5m
— AMA Media (@ama_media) March 23, 2020
Dr Bartone said the expansion of telehealth will ensure that GPs can “more efficiently use their time in helping their patients and their communities” and “reduce demand on valuable [personal protective equipment]“.
Telehealth crucial to combatting COVID-19
Telehealth has played a crucial role in countries that have been successful in limiting the spread of the coronavirus, such as China and South Korea.
Telehealth is “one of the best ways to get it under control”, said Dr Silvia Pfeiffer, chief executive of Australian telehealth software company Coviu.
“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,” Dr Pfeiffer said.
In China, telehealth is “basically the only way to see a doctor”, she said.
“Because people are staying in their homes, they’re not supposed to go out … people have switched to seeing doctors online now,” Dr Pfeiffer said.
The coronavirus pandemic will likely cause uptake of telehealth to “explode across the world’’.
“It should be a default mode and possibility for every patient to be able to see a clinician via video,” Dr Pfeiffer said.