Bulk-billed telehealth to combat coronavirus: Australia’s big Medicare changes explained

Telehealth has been extended for another six months.

Telehealth has been extended for another six months. Photo: Getty

Australia now has “whole of population” telehealth, with the government making bulk-billed phone and video consults available to all citizens in an effort to protect patients and health workers from COVID-19.

As of March 30, Australians will have free telehealth access to GPs, as well as some medical specialists, mental health treatment, and chronic disease management, thanks to changes rushed through to combat the coronavirus.

Telehealth services will receive $669 million of a new $1.1 billion funding package, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Sunday.

Medicare-subsidised telehealth services mean that “people can continue to get access to quality healthcare when they are at home”, Mr Morrison said.

“We are asking Australians to stay home, particularly older Australians … and we want to ensure that they can continue to get access to healthcare and health advice and support from GPs,” he said.

Telehealth services will include GP services and “some consultation services provided by other medical specialists, nurse practitioners, mental health treatment, chronic disease management, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health assessments, services to people with eating disorders, pregnancy support counselling, services to patients,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said.

The new arrangements will be in place until September 30, when “they will be reviewed in light of the need to continue the fight against coronavirus”, he said.

The government also opened new lines of communication with smartphone users, launching a WhatsApp message group and the Coronavirus Australia app, which feature up-to-date COVID-19 information, a symptoms checker, and contact details of services.

How telehealth works

Telehealth allows patients that don’t require a physical examination to talk to their doctor from their home over the phone or via video platforms such as FaceTime.

A telehealth doctor appointment can be made in the same way as a face-to-face appointment, by contacting your local GP’s office online or by phone.

Telehealth is expected to become the new normal as the coronavirus pandemic restricts the capacity of doctors to see patients face-to-face.

It has been used “for years” for consulting with patients in rural and remote areas, but the Medicare subsidies mean that all Australians will now be able to benefit from it, said Meena Qidwai, a GP and clinical expert at telehealth app Medinet.

It is a great service for everybody, but particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic,’’ Dr Qidwai said.

“It’s very, very helpful when you can’t physically go into the doctor.”

Telehealth allows doctors to screen patients for COVID-19 and treat mild symptoms or refer them for testing if required, reducing the risks associated with a face-to-face consultation, Dr Qidwai explained.

It can be used in many different circumstances, from treatment of minor ailments such as skin conditions and urinary infections to prescriptions, medical certificates and referrals, she said.

Telehealth is often similar to a face-to-face consultation, although there are some exceptions,” Dr Qidwai said.

“That’s why GPs are still open for business as usual because there are, for example, patients who are pregnant who need regular checkups, or babies who need their routine immunisations, and we obviously can’t see those physical things over the phone.”

Those seeking mental health support, including telehealth therapy sessions, should speak to their GP, Dr Qidwai said.

“We can certainly arrange for things to be done remotely and there are psychologists who are doing remote consulting for anxiety and depression and isolation issues at the moment,” she said.

“If you just contact your GP, they can arrange for that to be implemented.”

‘We’ll need to constantly monitor the mental health of the nation’

Of the $1.1 billion package, an initial $74 million will be spent to address the mental health impact of the coronavirus.

This includes $14 million for existing mental health support lines that are experiencing an unprecedented surge in calls, including the Kids Helpline and Lifeline, and a dedicated coronavirus wellbeing support line that is being set up by BeyondBlue with $10 million from the government and $5 million from Medibank.

The government said its digital health portal, Head to Health, will be a source of authoritative information on how to maintain good mental health during the pandemic and in self-isolation, and how to support children and others.

Health workers will get dedicated mental health support, the government said.

Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone said “scale and uncertainty of COVID-19” means “we’ll need to constantly monitor the mental health of the nation and provide further support as it becomes needed”.

‘A great win for patients and frontline health workers’

Doctors praised the telehealth expansion, with the AMA declaring it a “breakthrough agreement”.

The move will not only enable patients to consult doctors without leaving home, but will allow for “the continuation of normal patient care”, and crucially, “reduce the need for scarce Personal Protective Equipment”, the AMA said.

It will also alleviate some of the stress on public hospitals by reducing presentations that  “could have occurred without telehealth access”, Dr Bartone said.

Telehealth will help to protect doctors from infection and keep them in the workforce by allowing them to “conduct telehealth consultations from their practices or while they themselves may be in home isolation”, he said.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Dr Harry Nespolon described the telehealth expansion as “a great win for patients and frontline health workers, including GPs”.

If you are concerned about your or a loved one’s mental health, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14

If you are affected by domestic violence, confidential help is available from 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732

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