Starting from March 30, the Australian government implemented a ‘whole-of-population’ telehealth system for its citizens. By amending the previously existing law on telehealth services, the government concluded that telehealth consultations and services be available to every person, and be bulk billed by Medicare.
This means that every Australian now has free access to telehealth services, allowing them to consult GPs and other specialists at virtually no immediate cost.
The news has been met with a lot of positive remarks, with many GPs and health experts applauding the government’s decision regarding the issue. While some consider it the most significant change in recent times, others call it a welcome response to the outcry for better procedures for handling the current pandemic issue.
Initially, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and many other medical and patient groups have clamored for the Federal Government to arrange an effective response to the COVID-19 crisis.
The result is a $1.1 billion funding package meant to combat the widespread effects of the pandemic. According to Prime Minister Scott Morison, a total of $669 million dollars out of the funding is allocated to telehealth services.
The new Medicare bulk billed telehealth system is expected to be under operation until September 30. Till then, all citizens of Australia are free to make use of the service for their healthcare needs.
Australia joins the UK and United States as one of the countries to expand telehealth services in light of the current coronavirus pandemic. According to Mr Morrison, the Medicare-subsidized telehealth services ensure that quality healthcare can be accessed by every person while at home.
What Is Telehealth?
Telehealth, sometimes also referred to as telemedicine and telecare basically the use of ICT to deliver health information and services. This varies from phone consultations to email and video-conferencing.
By use of an audio link or visual screen, patients can have a virtual appointment with GPs, mental health experts, specialists, and other health professionals. With apps like Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp or FaceTime, a patient can discuss health issues and receive medical advice from his personal consultant.
Telehealth services are not really new to Australia. For years, it has been employed to deliver medical services and care to rural and regional Australians. Many people inaccessible areas also employ the service from time to time. Basically, telehealth services are originally available to anyone with a good phone, internet, and payment.
In the year 2011, the Government of Australia introduced the telehealth initiative. Its goal was to deal with the obstacles surrounding access to medical services for areas that were eligible for telehealth.
However, the initiative came with certain restrictions as only patients aged 70 and above had access to the bulk-billed service. It also excluded the services of certain medical professionals, including GPs, occupational therapists, clinic nurse coordinators, psychologists, and many others.
With the funding and new changes to the law came a lot of improvements. The eligibility criteria have now been expanded to a wider array of medical professionals. Also, now, every person in the country has been granted access to the system.
Of course, this is not the first time the Australian government has expanded telemedicine services. In 2019, the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt announced an investment of $45.5million in GP telehealth consultations.
The expansion was meant to ensure patients in remote areas gain access to regular health consultations with their GPs. The service also stretched for a period of two years, with MBS rebates available.
In light of the potency of spread COVID-19 possesses, a much safer means of attention to patients as needed. With the implementation of the whole-of-population system, doctors can now test patients for COVID-19 and treat symptoms remotely. This reduces the risk of infection for health workers and possible further spread of the virus.
A wide array of appointments is available for both patients and specialists under the new bulk-billed telehealth system. As it stands, people can get access to professionals which include;
- General Practitioners
- Occupational therapists for services for children with developmental delays
- Speech pathologists
- Social workers and dieticians
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Practitioners
To be eligible, a patient must be in Australia and eligible for Medicare. They must also not be admitted to a hospital. Basically, anyone who is under home quarantine is qualified for the bulk-billed services, most especially, patients more susceptible to coronavirus.
This includes people over 50, people with chronic conditions, pregnant women, parents with new babies, people with immunocompromised systems and indigenous people over 50 years.
Currently, the Medicare bulk-billing service is more focused on responding to the COVID-19 emergency. People with no current symptoms of the virus may only contact a professional they have seen face-to-face in the past 12 months to be able to bulk bill.
Patients can also access regular telehealth services through other means. These include networked programs, where remote clinics are connected to larger health facilities through high-speed internet networks.
They can also be monitored at home through phone or internet connections. Store-and-forward platforms can also be used by health workers to disperse patient data securely. Health tracking tools and real-time video links can also be employed, allowing interactions between doctors and patients.
The Medicare Bulk Billed Telehealth service primarily reduces the chances of infection for both patients. Instead of sitting around in waiting rooms, risking the chances of catching the virus, patients can now access medical services from home.
The expansion also ensures all Australians gain access to necessary medical attention when needed, while in quarantine. Plus, it eases access to lesser services like therapies and prescriptions.
The patient simply dials in; the doctor makes a checkup and emails or texts the prescriptions to the patient at the end of the session. And all these can be done at virtually zero-pocket costs to the patients.
Medical practitioners, especially front-line health workers also benefit from this change in the law. As they stand the highest chances of getting infected, it helps to know they can now render services from a safe distance.
The older medical practitioners and those with chronic illnesses benefit most from this development as they’re more susceptible to the virus. Plus, it reduces the stress of moving about to tend to their clients in their old age.
With the new system, medical professionals can carry about their duties, while staying in isolation themselves. The new system also ensures scarce protective gear is duly conserved since they won’t be needed during an online consultation.
This is considered a huge win for the medical community as the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the RACGP have been calling for the safety of health workers during the pandemic. The president of the AMA, Dr Tony Bartone commended the expansion and considers it a major breakthrough.
While the current Medicare Bulk Billed Telehealth service has been appraised by lots of doctors and GPs, there are some expressed concerns. One angle is its utilization. Though the Health Minister expresses the benefits of the system, he stressed that a large proportion of GP services require face-to-face treatment.
For those, the Australian College for Emergency Medicine president, Dr John Bonning speaks up. He reminds patients that physical appointments are still a necessity and primary health centres are still open for business.
Also, the bulk billing services mean doctors get paid less, meaning reduced cash flow for medical practitioners. To ease the problems of lesser inflow revenue, the FG also stipulates certain incentives for GPs and other practitioners who bulk bill.
A total of $6.40 will be given for consultations in major cities. Everywhere else, doctors get a total of $9.65. However, only consults to patients below 16 and concession cardholders are eligible for incentives.
There are also reports that the newly implemented system may be further worsening the march to collapse of smaller, doctor-owned medical practices. Many small clinics owned by doctors have reported a gradual shortage of patient patronage due to the lockdown and claim that the bulk billing services will cause further revenue loss.
Some GPs point out that at the current pace, the combined problems will force many of these doctor-owned clinics to close down completely. In response, the Health Minister, RACGP and other medical bodies have called upon Australians to not neglect their ordinary health needs. They insist people should seek their doctors and GPs on their routine medical issues.