The Australian government has made available two new subsidised telephone consult services for patients living in COVID-19 hotspot areas.
In a statement on Thursday, Health Minister Greg Hunt said the new Medicare items will enable doctors to provide 20 minutes or more of telephone consultations.
WHY IT MATTERS
The move is in response to the growing COVID-19 cases in New South Wales, especially in Sydney which was recently placed under an extended lockdown until end-July. Over 900 people were infected since a new outbreak was announced in mid-June.
"The latest COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney has demonstrated consultations with GPs via the telephone remains critical for patient safety and access during lockdowns," said Dr Omar Khorshid, president of the Australian Medical Association, in a separate statement.
He said that many patients prefer using the telephone and it helps ensure those people without the skills to use videoconferencing software or a fast internet connection can access essential medical services.
Moreover, the subsidised service has also been extended to patients in other locations who are required to undergo isolation or quarantine, including those who may have travelled in areas with high COVID-19 incidences.
Minister Hunt also said: "The items are exempt from the normal telehealth requirement that the patient has received a face-to-face consultation from the providing doctor or another doctor at the same practice in the last 12 months."
Medicare, Australia's universal health insurance scheme, will provide patients with a A$75.75 ($56) rebate for the GP service, whose fees are equivalent to Level C face-to-face appointments.
THE LARGER TREND
The federal government has extended its provision of telehealth services until yearend which was supposed to end in June. It has allotted A$114 million ($88 million) to fund the programme.
In November last year, the federal government announced that telehealth will be a permanent addition to Medicare.
In other news, based on a recent study by US-based software reviews website Capterra, nearly eight in 10 of over a thousand Australians surveyed wanted to use telehealth again. Most of them or 79% had accessed telemedicine services via phone call, while less than 20% used videoconferencing apps.
ON THE RECORD
"The pandemic is not over and the AMA has warned more outbreaks around the country are likely. This decision by the Federal Government supports improved patient access to telephone consultations when a hotspot is declared and it means that GPs are better positioned to respond and continue to provide timely access to care for their patients during such challenging times," Dr Khorsid said.
"Telehealth has played an important role in supporting Australians through the pandemic and these new items mean Australians can continue to see their GP, renew scripts and seek mental health support from the safety of their own home," Minister Hunt also said.