‘A wonderful day’: telehealth to become permanent

Jolyon Attwooll

13/12/2021 10:06:37 AM

Minister for Health and Aged Care highlights RACGP’s role ‘as principal partner’ in introduction of ‘transformational’ telehealth service on an ongoing basis.

Telehealth consultation.
More than $100 million is being set aside to facilitate the introduction of a permanent telehealth scheme.

RACGP President Dr Karen Price has welcomed the Federal Government’s announcement that telehealth will become a permanent feature of the healthcare system.
It confirms the ongoing presence of one the biggest changes to general practice prompted by the pandemic and is a move the college has strongly advocated for.
Dr Price called it a ‘wonderful day in the history of general practice’.
‘The era-defining episode of COVID has served to highlight just how intertwined health service delivery is with the health of the nation,’ Dr Price said at a press conference held alongside Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt on Monday morning.  
‘Telehealth has been a remarkable and innovative solution which enabled our country to stay as safe as possible.’
The introduction is part of a $283 million investment announced by the Government on Monday, 13 December.
Of those funds, $106 million is being set aside to facilitate the introduction of a permanent telehealth scheme, $58.8 million will go towards improving access to mental health services, $41.2 million has bene earmarked for health services in regional and rural Australia, and $77 million will be used to improve Medicare access.
The college has worked hard with Government to make telehealth permanent because of its clear value for patient care, Dr Price said.
‘Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic telehealth has proven to be a valuable complement to face-to-face care, it increased access to care for patients in need and no doubt saved lives,’ she said.
‘I know patients and GPs alike will be glad and relieved to hear that these services will remain and will continue to support access to care for people across Australia.’
In a press release including details of the announcement, telehealth is described as ‘transformational’ to Australia’s universal healthcare system, having played a ‘critical role in ensuring the continuity of care for hundreds of thousands of Australian patients’ during the pandemic.
There have been more than 86 million phone and video consultations since telehealth was introduced last year, involving 16.1 million patients and $4.4 billion in Medicare benefits paid. According to Department of Health (DoH) statistics, more than 89,000 providers have used telehealth services.
Minister Hunt told reporters on Monday morning that the RACGP has played a key part in making telehealth a success.
‘Then in terms of telehealth, it’s a continuation of the existing measures across the work of GPs, allied health and specialists and I want to thank everybody for their involvement in that,’ he said. 
‘All of the different parts of the medical community have played their role but the RACGP has been our principal partner on that front and well supported by the AMA and ACRRM.’
Minister Hunt also said that he expects telehealth will prove instrumental as the presence of COVID-19 increases in the community, but that the current level of telehealth MBS rebates will remain unchanged for the moment.
‘You can imagine that where there are patients going through a period of isolation for COVID, being able to receive the consultation from the doctor after the initial diagnosis from their home keeps the patient safe, keeps the community safe but also keeps the doctors and their practice staff safe,’ he said.
The funding also includes $31.8 million for the Workforce Incentive Program (WIP), designed to give extra funds to general practices by including telehealth items in the calculation of the Standard Whole Patient Equivalent (SWPE).
That move was again welcomed by Dr Price.
‘The RACGP has been calling for the inclusion of telehealth consultations in the SWPE calculation, which underpin practice funding, since telehealth started and it is good to see that the Government recognises telehealth as part of the size of the practice,’ she said.
The use of telehealth was fast-tracked as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and was initially confirmed as a permanent feature of the health service last November.
The $106 million will be invested over four years.
Rural changes
Meanwhile, investment in rural and regional healthcare will include changes to the Distribution Priority Areas, with GP catchments in Modified Monash Model (MMM) expanded to include catchments in MMM areas 3–4.
It is a move designed to improve access to primary healthcare outside of the big cities, which has suffered from well documented issues in recent years.
Doctors and nurse practitioners wishing to work in rural and remote areas of Australia will also have all or part of their Higher Education Loan Programme (HELP) waived in a bid to encourage more workers to the regions.
Dr Price said the changes are a positive step.
‘We need to attract more GPs to train and work in rural and remote Australia and expanding the DPA classification will help,’ she said.
While noting the rural GP workforce shortage is a complex problem, Dr Price said the measures will help improve healthcare access in regional areas.
‘The research shows that incentivising GPs in training to live and work outside of metropolitan areas can help improve access to high quality care for communities in need,’ she said.
‘And GPs who do train in rural or remote areas are far more likely to remain living and working there, after seeing all the opportunities and benefits of the career and lifestyle.’
Mental health support
The Government said the $58.8 million investment will allow subsidised mental health support available through psychiatrists, psychologists and GPs to be continued until at least December 2022 to address the ongoing impact of the pandemic.
The Medicare-subsidised sessions will take place under the Better Access scheme.
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Dr Primo Phillip Bentivegna   14/12/2021 9:49:50 AM

Wonderful news.
Do we have any details on what other "requirements" will exist in order to continue to access TeleHealth item numbers?