The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has cautiously welcomed the Federal Government’s move to temporarily restore telehealth to peak COVID-19 pandemic settings.
On Sunday, health minister Greg Hunt and regional health minister David Gillespie announced an additional $24 million for a range of measures to give GPs and other specialists more flexibility to support patients.
It comes after RACGP president Dr Karen Price met with Hunt and Gillespie, along with other peak general practice and medical organisations, to discuss the challenges facing general practice and support needed to ensure GPs can stay open and deliver the essential care to Australians at this time.
The announcement outlined the following measures:
- an additional $24 million for temporary changes to telehealth to give GPs and other specialists more flexibility to support patients, including the continued supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) and online support
- the introduction of temporary specialist inpatient telehealth MBS items (video and phone) and initial and complex specialist telephone consultation items, including longer telephone consultations for GP’s (level C) until 30 June 2022. These services will be available nationally, rather than targeted at Commonwealth hotspots
- expanding the MBS item for GPs caring for COVID positive patients in the community through face-to-face consultations to include patients that have tested positive through a rapid antigen test (RAT)
- packages of personal protective equipment (PPE) to GPs, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services and GP Respiratory Clinics to support GPs providing face-to-face care. Over 20 million units of PPE will be provided for primary care over the next three months, including nine million p2/n95 masks for GPs.
- Healthdirect will develop a national assessment, triage and notification infrastructure to connect people who test positive with the care they need and advice, based on guidelines developed by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, (soon to be available in multiple community languages). This is expected to commence in Queensland on 17 January 2022 with other states to follow.
Price said that the announcement was a step in the right direction.
“It’s positive news that the Government is listening to the Royal Australian College of GPs on telehealth and need for more support to manage the increasing number of COVID-19 positive patients in the community,” she said.
“GPs and patients have embraced telehealth during the pandemic, and it is here to stay.
“Video and telephone consultations have changed the way we deliver healthcare and I believe many patients will continue to utilise telehealth for years to come post-pandemic as a compliment to face-to-face care.
Price said she and her colleagues strongly advocated for Medicare rebates to remain for longer telephone consultations and for good reason.
“Telehealth use in Australia is largely phone-based.
“Between March 2020 and March 2021, video consultations comprised only 2.4 per cent of telehealth services.
“Video consultations are not suitable for many patients including older people unaccustomed to the technology or those with unreliable internet access.
“Last year, when the Federal Government removed Medicare support for phone consultations lasting longer than 20 minutes, we warned that this would disadvantage vulnerable patient groups.
“The stark reality is that many of the patients who benefit the most from telehealth are also the most disadvantaged when it comes to internet connectivity and reliability.
“Discouraging longer phone consultations is particularly disadvantageous for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people seeking to undertake a health assessment, patients in rural and remote areas, older people, and those with multiple chronic conditions,” she said.
“So, we called on the Government to reinstate Medicare rebates for longer phone consultations as part of the permanent telehealth model.
“A six-month restoration of these rebates is welcome; however, we must not stop there – this must be a permanent fixture of telehealth for years to come and the RACGP will continue fighting to make that happen.
“Otherwise, we risk undoing a lot of hard work that has improved care for patients including those in rural and remote areas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients and patients with chronic disease.”
Price said that telehealth was needed by patients across Australia more than ever before.
“With COVID-19 cases escalating in many communities across Australia, particularly New South Wales and my home state of Victoria, telehealth is a great solution for people at greater risk of severe illness if they contract the virus including older people, those with serious underlying health conditions and the immunocompromised,” she said.
“For many health conditions, telehealth provides the perfect avenue.
“So don’t hesitate to ring your GP and book an appointment, the worst thing you can do is avoid or put off care you need now.
“The Healthdirect direct triage service, which the RACGP has been consulting closely on, will also help ease the pressure on practices across the nation which have been flooded by calls from COVID-19 positive patients.
“This service will act as a point of contact for anyone with a positive result to receive assessment and information on what to do.
“Importantly, it will also link to community care pathways developed in different states and territories to ensure GPs have the information required to help manage COVID-19 positive patients at home.”
The RACGP president also welcomed the Government acting on RACGPs calls for additional PPE to help GPs provide face-to-face care to all patients, including those who are seeing COVID-19 positive patients.
“PPE is critical for GPs in a time of high community prevalence and in case of providing face-to-face care for COVID-19 positive people,” she said.
“It’s also welcome that this is being prioritised for rural, regional and remote areas, where we know access to PPE can be challenging.
“We also know that general practice is a critical workforce for public health and our members must have protection provided which is commensurate with the risks of the continuing pandemic.”
Price also urged people to continue their usual care.
“The data shows that people tend to avoid or delay care during times of high community transmission, and restrictions.
“This is very concerning because it leads to delayed diagnosis and worsening health conditions down the track, and puts even more pressure on our overloaded health system,” she said.
“So, if your health concern does require a face-to-face consultation, remember that practices have robust systems in place to minimise the chance of you contracting COVID-19.
“So please look after your health and don’t put off any consultations with your GP, we are here to help.”