Telehealth must remain an integral part of health system beyond COVID-19

Telehealth measures introduced by the federal government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic must become a permanent part of Australia’s health system beyond the crisis, the Senate Select Committee on Financial Technology and Regulatory Technology has heard.

The government introduced unrestricted Medicare rebates for telehealth in the wake of the pandemic but the broader access is set to expire at the end of September.

The Committee heard from experts including the Australian Medical Association (AMA) President Tony Bartone and Rural Doctors Association of Australia CEO Peta Rutherford at yesterday’s hearing.

The AMA reiterated its calls for Medicare-funded telehealth consultations with GPs and non-GP specialists to extend beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and become a permanent fixture in Australia’s health system.

Dr Bartone said about 20% of all Medicare-funded consultations with a doctor were now being provided by telehealth, either via phone or video, since the temporary Medicare telehealth items were introduced in March in response to the coronavirus crisis.

“Patients are clearly making the case for telehealth consultations to become a permanent feature of our health system for both GPs and non-GP specialists,” Dr Bartone said.

“Telehealth is the norm in many parts of the world, providing patients with a convenient option to access care where they don’t need a physical examination. The AMA has long championed the case for the introduction and expansion of telehealth in Australia.

“Telehealth is not a substitute for face-to-face visits to the doctor, but it does provide a cost-effective option that can supplement traditional visits.”
Dr Bartone said the temporary expansion of telehealth, driven by the need to reduce the risks of transmission of COVID-19 and to protect vulnerable patients, had presented the opportunity to trial telehealth in the “Australian context” and achieved positive results.

“It has been an outstanding success that is supporting high-quality patient care from both GPs and non-GP specialists – and it should continue for the long term.

“We must now turn to the task of fully integrating telehealth into day-to-day medical practice according to best practice standards to ensure continuity of care for patients.”

Health Minister Greg Hunt has already acknowledged the success of telehealth and the government is considering how it can continue beyond the current interim arrangement.

Committee Chair, Senator Andrew Bragg, said the hearing provided evidence that telehealth measures introduced in response to COVID-19 were “transformational”.

“There’s no doubt that by ramping up the delivery of telehealth and e-prescriptions we’ve achieved many years of reform in a matter of weeks,” he said.

“Clearly, Australia’s top medical professionals believe video and phone consultations make medical care more accessible and cheaper, and should be used to complement face-to-face visits.

“Digital prescriptions are strongly supported by the profession because they are cheaper, faster and eliminate the worry about losing a script.”
The hearing also heard Australians are open to considering ideas like a Digital ID.

“Reluctance to Digital ID has lowered, and in particular younger people have become more comfortable with sharing data knowing it makes it easier to transact generally and that it is easier to authenticate,” Senator Bragg said.

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