GPs have embraced telehealth, survey finds

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

6/08/2020 3:17:25 PM

RACGP survey results from July show GPs and patients are seeing the benefits of telehealth consultations – but there is room for improvement.

Doctor using iPad
GPs who use video said they find it to be more personal, it helps them in assessing the patient, and that it aids them in undertaking a physical examination.

Since telehealth was rapidly unrolled in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, GPs have proven their ability to adapt – as have patients. 
Among more than 420 GPs surveyed by the RACGP, one in five respondents reported that 61–80% of their patients have requested a telehealth consultation.
While the majority of GPs opt for the telephone when undertaking a telehealth consultation, more than half (54%) of those surveyed had used video at least once.
GPs who use video said they find it to be more personal (19%), it helps them in assessing the patient (26%), and that it aids them in undertaking a physical examination (18%).
The most common types of video consultations undertaken are standard consultations, follow-up consultations, prescriptions, referrals, and for mental health.
Dr Steven Kaye, a GP and Deputy Chair of the RACGP Expert Committee on Practice Technology and Management, said it is positive to see GPs transforming the way they operate and adopting video technology.
‘We campaigned so strongly for the expansion of telehealth and telephone consultations for good reason,’ he said.
‘These services allow patients with a variety of health conditions to talk on the phone or via online platforms with their GP while minimising the risk of transmitting or spreading the COVID-19 virus.’
A survey of more than 1100 GPs conducted by the RACGP in April showed more than 99% are offering consultations via video or telephone.
That survey also found that almost 97% of practices are still offering face-to-face consultations, providing patients with flexible access options to seek the care they need.
However, a June survey of more than 700 Australians revealed 32% of respondents had delayed or avoided seeing their GP in the previous three months due to fears of contracting COVID-19.
While the trend started to reverse with the easing of restrictions, there are fears patients may again put off seeing their GP as metropolitan Melbourne faces even harsher restrictions.
While patient concerns are understandable, Dr Kaye cautioned against delaying care. 
‘GPs from across Australia have reported significant drops in patient numbers. We must reverse this trend immediately,’ he said.
‘If not, we may see an increase in health concerns emerge in coming months because patients have avoided seeing their GP and worsened a condition that could have been treated more effectively earlier.’
Dr Kaye said the uncertainty around the pandemic’s trajectory again highlights the importance of telehealth.
‘GPs are responsible for care for many patients from cradle to grave and it’s vital that people of all ages and backgrounds have their health concerns addressed right away,’ he said.
‘If patients are not comfortable visiting their GP for a face-to-face consultation, but are confident using online platforms, it provides the perfect solution.
‘A consultation can take place without the patient leaving their own home.’
Thirty-seven per cent of survey respondents said they would be willing to try video consultations, however, the results indicated more needs to be done for that to happen.
A quarter of respondents report that they do not have the necessary hardware or software to use video technology. And the adoption of video consultations requires additional support and education for GPs and the practice team.
Dr Kaye said the RACGP is committed to working to overcome any hurdles for GPs.
‘We want to continue working with Government to help GPs and patients embrace telehealth and resolve the obstacles some GPs have identified,’ he said.
‘The COVID-19 pandemic has forced healthcare to adapt in many ways and we are here to help our GPs make the transition to video technology.
‘Telehealth is a huge benefit for patients, so if GPs want to use the technology we must ensure that they have the infrastructure and training needed to do so successfully.
‘It’s vital to remember though that if patients are not confident using video technologies that [that] is okay because an old-fashioned telephone will work just fine. What is most important is that you don’t delay or avoid seeking care from your GP, we are there to help.’
The vast majority of GPs welcomed the prospect of the temporary COVID-19 Medicare Benefits Schedule items being extended beyond the 30 September deadline, indicating that they would continue to provide care via telehealth.
Dr Kaye assured that the RACGP is working with the Federal Government to make this a reality.
‘There is strong demand for flexible telehealth and telephone consultations to continue,’ he said.   
‘It’s not just about flexibility and convenience; telehealth is often the most appropriate and efficient medium to provide a service when a patient is already known to the practice.
‘We now know this consultation model works for many GPs and patients so there is no reason to slam the door shut on facilitating the use of this technology in communities across Australia.
‘For too long general practice has been stuck in the 1970s. Let’s learn from this experience and bring consultation services up to speed.’
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