Calls for long-term funding in light of $24 million telehealth announcement

By Melissa Coade

January 18, 2022

Karen Price
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Karen Price. (karenprice.com.au)

News of the federal government’s boost to telehealth services has been ‘cautiously welcomed’ by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), who met with ministers to discuss the support needed to provide essential care during the pandemic.

The money will fund video and telephone specialist inpatient telehealth medical benefits scheme (MBS) items, initial and complex specialist telephone consultation items, and longer telephone consultations for GPs (level C).

RACGP president Dr Karen Price said the multimillion-dollar funding, which temporarily restores nationwide telehealth services to peak COVID-19 settings, was a ‘step in the right direction’. But, she noted, the need for these services would also continue beyond the government’s 30 June 2022 cut-off date.

“A six-month restoration of these rebates is welcome; however, we must not stop there — this must be a permanent fixture of telehealth for years to come and the RACGP will continue fighting to make that happen,” Price said. 

​​“Otherwise, we risk undoing a lot of hard work that has improved care for patients, including those in rural and remote areas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients, and patients with chronic disease.”

Price met health minister Greg Hunt and regional health minister David Gillespe this week to explain what GPs need to continue delivering services during the spread of Omicron in Australia. Following the meeting, the ministers also announced that more than 20 million units of additional PPE will be provided to primary care settings over the next three months.

Rural, regional and remote areas will be prioritised for the PPE allocation, which includes nine million p2/n95 masks for GPs and three million for pharmacists. 

On Monday, the ministers released a joint statement saying the government was listening to frontline workers and making changes to help them care for patients. 

“All these changes support GPs and specialist medical practitioners to manage the significant increase in Australians with mild-to-moderate symptoms of COVID-19,” Hunt and Gillespe said.

“They will ensure continuity of care for Australians, whether they have COVID or other conditions; relieve pressure on the hospital system during the current Omicron surge; and help communities all over the country to get through the present challenges as soon as possible.”

One of the temporary healthcare setting changes includes expanding the MBS item for GPs caring for COVID positive patients. This means that people who have returned a positive COVID result using a rapid antigen test (RAT) can be treated by their GP under the scheme. 

“This aligns with national cabinet’s decision on 5 January 2022 that RAT tests no longer need to be confirmed by PCR,” the ministers said. 

Queensland will be the first state to benefit from a new national assessment, triage and notification infrastructure that has also been developed by the federal government with Healthdirect. From Monday, the system will be available in the state, connecting people who test positive with the appropriate level of care and advice based on guidelines developed by the RACGP. 

The service will soon be available in multiple languages, the ministers added. 

“Through this service, Healthdirect – which already provides the National Coronavirus Hotline, symptom checker, and a range of online resources – will be the point of contact for anyone with a positive COVID result to receive assessment, information on what to do and connect them to appropriate care,” the joint statement said. 

“This is supported by community care pathways developed across jurisdictions to ensure GPs have the information they need to manage patients, and that people recovering at home can be referred to social support services if they face challenges during their isolation period. “

Dr Price said that the Healthdirect triage service will link community care pathways developed in different states and territories to ensure doctors can access information to help manage COVID-19 positive patients from home.

“With COVID-19 cases escalating in many communities across Australia, particularly New South Wales and my home state of Victoria, telehealth is a great solution for people at greater risk of severe illness if they contract the virus including older people, those with serious underlying health conditions and the immunocompromised,” Price said.

“For many health conditions, telehealth provides the perfect avenue. So don’t hesitate to ring your GP and book an appointment, the worst thing you can do is avoid or put off care you need now.”

Hunt and Glillespe acknowledged the important role telehealth played during the pandemic, offering flexibility ‘at the most critical time’.

Price said that between video and telephone telehealth services, telephone consultations were overwhelmingly preferred by patients — including older people or those with unreliable internet access. She said the RACGP was urging the government to reinstate Medicare rebates for longer phone consultations as part of the permanent telehealth model.

“Video and telephone consultations have changed the way we deliver healthcare and I believe many patients will continue to utilise telehealth for years to come post-pandemic as a complement to face-to-face care,” Dr Price said.


READ MORE:

Federal government grants six-month extension to telehealth

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