GPs partner with specialists to streamline telehealth

Morgan Liotta

6/05/2020 2:03:35 PM

One telehealth service has used the lockdown to expand its vision of improving access to specialist care for patients in under-served communities.

Woman using telehealth
Telecare aims to overcome barriers to accessing specialist care through coordinating with GPs.

The recent growth of telehealth has helped ease delivery of care during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some doctors say it could lead to a ‘permanent shift’ in healthcare.
Telecare Australia – one of the finalists at the 2019 PitchFest – provides coordinated specialist care via telehealth with the assistance of GPs, with a focus on rural communities and older patients at home.
Dr Raymond Wen is the clinical advisor for Telecare Australia. He told newsGP the organisation has grown significantly since Pitchfest at GP19, with patients across seven states and territories, including all the way to Christmas Island.
With currently 38 practitioners comprised of non-GP specialists and allied health practitioners covering 24 specialties, Dr Wen says that although there are no GPs providing services directly, they do play an integral part in the facilitation of care.
‘We couldn’t do this without our referring GPs, who give us invaluable feedback,’ he said.
‘With our rural and aged care patients, GPs can facilitate the telehealth consultation in person and receive a Medicare rebate for doing so ­– this is where GPs can be involved in the consultation.
‘We find this model is incredibly useful for the patient, GP and the specialist.’
GPs can refer their patients to Telecare who will benefit from a specialist telehealth consultation, particularly for patients who are finding it difficult to access such services, including rural and remote, aged care or Aboriginal medical service settings.
‘For this group of patients we have focused on solving access problems during the pandemic,’ Dr Wen said. 
‘Where GPs would like to facilitate their patient’s telehealth consultation, they simply send us a referral and we handle the rest. We have adapted specific workflows for different GP clinics where requested and there are no fees for GPs.’
Part of the incentive to launch Telecare was to overcome barriers to accessing specialist care, such as coordination of telehealth and wait times, with the aim to reduce the average waiting period to see a specialist to less than a week.
‘Whilst telehealth is not new, the uptake of its usage had been lukewarm in Australia before the COVID-19 pandemic,’ Dr Wen said.
‘One major stumbling block to widespread adoption is that coordinating telehealth [can be] difficult.’
After the Telecare start up received feedback from GPs at last year’s Pitchfest, many agreed that facilitating telehealth has some challenges, particularly when preserving the patient­–doctor relationship, leading Telecare to a goal of enabling this existing bond.
‘Telecare focuses on providing a collaborative care model, so where the patient’s GP is available to facilitate the telehealth consultation this is always preferred,’ Dr Wen said.
‘GPs know their patients and can add invaluable tacit knowledge of the patient and their context to the specialist consultation. The majority of our rural and aged care telehealth consultations are facilitated by the patient’s treating GP.’
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Wen is hoping the Federal Government’s telehealth expansion will allow Telecare’s cohort of specialists to see more patients in urban areas, while enabling them to receive Medicare rebates.
‘As our vision has always been about improving access. We have worked with our specialists to ensure all our consultations are bulk billed,’ Dr Wen said.
With the notion of telehealth becoming more of a fixture in delivering care, Dr Wen is also hopeful it will become a part of mainstream practice beyond COVID-19.
‘We want to be an integral part of this shift in how medicine is practised in Australia … and in the process educate both GPs and patients on the potential of telehealth,’ he said.

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