Telehealth will become a permanent fixture of Australia’s healthcare system as the Federal Government has committed $103 million over the next four years to subsidise access to the service through Medicare.
Telehealth refers to the delivery of healthcare via phone, video or online platforms, and has been taken up en mass during the pandemic, with more than 86 million services delivered to 16 million patients since March 2020.
Dr. Silvia Pfeiffer, CEO and founder of Coviu, Australia’s leading telehealth platform, tells Aged Care News that this funding signals the shift from telehealth being considered an emergency measure, to it being recognised as a genuine tool to enhance consistency and quality of care going forward.
“[Telehealth was] made available during the COVID crisis, and now that we’re starting to go from pandemic to endemic… the Government has decided that they can be useful for supporting patients’ ordinary needs, so they’re actually making them available permanently.”
“That’s a huge change, because GP’s can now rely on these Medicare items being available and actually change their behaviour around it and offer patients more choice.”
Pfeiffer adds that this added choice and control over healthcare provision will benefit patients and clinicians alike.
“Patients can experience a new level of choice with regards to how they’d like to see their doctor, giving them opportunities to make access to healthcare part of their normal lives, rather than arranging lives around their healthcare needs.
“For clinicians, this means having the choice to work from home, service patients without geographical limitations or become sub-specialists in a particular area of interest.”
For Coviu, which provides specialised technology for hosting telehealth calls within the medical industry, Pfeiffer says this is a huge opportunity, signalling the increasing normalisation of digital care.
“We basically banked on the idea that telehealth will be something that every single clinician will will actually need to embrace in the future.
“It will be something that every patient will eventually also use – not all the time; we don’t expect everything to go to a digital model, but we expect this to be an option for every patient to have available.”
“It’s really great to see that the pandemic has brought the timeline on that transition forward, so a huge opportunity for Coviu to help propel our healthcare industry into the age of digital communication.”
Expanded access to online consultation with healthcare professionals, Pfeiffer says, will help to create a more robust and equitable healthcare system for all Australians.
“Telehealth is one of those things that reduces the barriers to access for health care, which is really important,” she says.
“It’s important for people in rural and remote areas.
“It’s also important for people that are finding it hard to go and see a clinician: be that because they have mental health issues, they may have a disability, or because they’re older and can’t transport themselves there.
“This lowers the barrier to access, which is what we all need.”
It is a move that aligns with research underpinning the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, which noted in early 2020 that telehealth was incredibly underused.
“The royal commission report stated that telehealth can actually help address some of the issues, in particular, within residential aged care centres,” Pfeiffer says.
“Because what often happens is in a residential aged care centre, somebody gets so sick that they need to go see a doctor right now and the only option that they have is actually to take them to the next hospital and put them into emergency care, but telehealth can actually help with that.
“And it’s actually the same for home care, so people that are ageing in place also get better access to aged care, because they can just pick up the phone or do a video call with their clinician, rather than having to get a family member to transport them to a clinic.”
Pfeiffer notes that the one room for improvement in the current Government package, especially in terms of quality of care for older Australians, relates to clarity around funding for allied health.
“What was unclear to me in the [Federal Government] press release was whether this is just for GPs or also for allied health.
“You’ve got speech pathologists, mental health practitioners, physical therapists, nutritionists, et cetera.
“All of these allied health providers are a core and important for everyone, but nobody more so than then our ageing community.
“Oftentimes, we only speak about GP’s, but allied health is actually really important, so I’d really like to see the Medicare items for allied health [via telehealth] also be made permanent.”
Pfeiffer explains that moving forward, the application of telehealth can be scaled beyond one-on-one appointments.
She points to the power of remote patient monitoring, which can monitor the condition of patients efficiently and at scale: systems that have become increasingly important since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We’re now seeing lots of Omicron cases and they even predicted that there might be 25,000 Omicron cases a day [in NSW], very soon,” Pfeiffer says.
“And even though they’re mild and our hospitals will be will be able to cope with it … they’ll be isolating at home and they will need support from their GP’s or from their providers.
“Just doing telehealth, and I totally support telehealth for that, absolutely, but it’s not scalable.
“If we’re seeing so many cases, we need to really think about how we can automate that more and remote patient monitoring is where we can do that: a GP practice can get a dashboard of all the patients that they have, and patients do simple, self-reporting through a mobile application.
“And as they do self-reporting, the clinicians can go through that dashboard and selectively check in with patients that look in more urgent need of attention, and that is much more scalable, and really much more supportive of our current state of the nation.”
“So I’d like to implore the Government there as well to think about reimbursements for these kinds of approaches.”
This latest round of funding for telehealth is part of a $308.6 million package announced by the Morrison Government on December 13.
Millions of dollars will also be directed to mental health services, regional and rural health services and primary care related to COVID-19.
Coviu is a software platform designed to facilitate telehealth video calls, first created within the Australian research organisation, CSIRO.
It offers a variety of clinician-specific features such as a virtual waiting room and AI powered diagnostic tools.
It is now used by over 65,000 health professionals Australia-wide.