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Patients unlikely to stop telehealth after the pandemic: Research


Matt Woodley


7/01/2021 3:01:35 PM

A new GP-led study has labelled telehealth a game-changer, with one author saying ‘we can’t turn back the clock’.

Doctor picking up the phone
Telehealth consultations increased dramatically in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The research, led by Macquarie University and involving a number of different Primary Health Networks (PHNs) in New South Wales and Victoria, shows a dramatic uptake in the use of phone consultations in particular since the creation of new Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) item numbers in March last year.
 
In the Victorian PHNs captured by the study, GP telephone consultations increased from zero per week in 2019 to a median of 95,357 per week in 2020, while video consultations increased from 38 to 2540. Meanwhile, face-to-face consultations dropped from 202,624 per week to 140,485.
 
It was a similar story in NSW, where phone consultations increased from none in 2019 to a median of 42,850 per week, alongside an uptick in video consultations from four per week to 805.
 
The researchers, led by Professor Andrew Georgiou from Macquarie University’s Centre for Health Systems and Safety Research, found overall that people consulted GPs more often from January to September 2020 than they did in the same period in 2019, despite the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
‘We think much of that is because people could access telehealth,’ Professor Georgiou said.
 
The study covered nearly 30% of the Australian population, and included urban and rural/remote regions from close to 800 general practices (454 from Victoria and 346 from NSW).
 
Dr Chris Pearce, a GP in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, says telehealth has been an ‘absolute game-changer’ for general practice.
 
‘We have to acknowledge, we can’t turn the clock back – it’s now an important part of how we work,’ he said.
 
‘Here’s a typical example: I might see a patient and order a blood test, and a year ago I’d say, “Come back and see me and we’ll go through the results”. They take the morning off work, and sit in my waiting room for however long it takes.
 
‘Now, we have a 10-minute phone call, it’s more convenient for them [and] it’s more convenient for me – I can do some of my work from home.’
 
Dr Pearce also said telehealth can be used by doctors to more effectively coordinate patients’ care, such as arranging referrals and prescribing, while simultaneously identifying patients who need to be seen in person. This was especially important during Victoria’s second lockdown, where many of Dr Pearce’s elderly patients did not want to risk in-person for medical appointments.
 
In Victoria, around 40% of GP consultations each week between January and September 2020 were via telehealth, while telehealth made up nearly 30% of NSW weekly GP consultations.
 
‘We found the vast majority of telehealth consultations were done by phone and that video didn’t take off in the same way, probably through a lack of technology or knowledge in both doctors and patients,’ says Professor Georgiou.
 
‘We know that even though telehealth is not a pure substitute for a face-to-face consultation, it did deliver a lot of important medical care through the pandemic.
 
‘We are very interested to see how things changed in general practice over the course of the pandemic, with these levels of telehealth consultations.
 
‘Did patients get the same level of care? How were conditions such as diabetes and cancer managed during this time?’
 
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced the permanent extension of telehealth in late 2020 following extensive advocacy from the RACGP, and other research has also previously shown its continued uptake by GPs and patients.
 
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