The combination of the distancing requirements of COVID-19, the extension of Medicare to cover telehealth and continuing improvements in technology have created one of the major changes in primary care delivery in modern times. Seemingly, the changes have happened overnight, although preparations have been in train for some time, with the unexpected (in many, but not all quarters) appearance of COVID-19 simply jump-starting the process.
GPs, patients and the federal government have all shown enthusiasm for the conducting of phone and video appointments, when appropriate, and a spokesperson for Health Minister Greg Hunt says Canberra wants the treating of patients by online or mobile phone technology to be part of the “post-COVID-19 world”.
Local statistics gathered by the North Coast Primary Health Network (NCPHN) show more than 80 of 101 surveyed practices now offer phone or video appointments. While high, this is surpassed by the national GP uptake, with a RACGP survey of almost 1200 practices finding 99 per cent of them offering consultations via phone or video.
This suggests a “long-term future for telehealth”, Minister Hunt added.
RACGP president Dr Harry Nespolon said telehealth provides “efficient effective care in about 40 per cent of cases… doctors like it, patients like it…. Some consults can be done easily over the phone”.
Between mid-March and mid-May close to five million people received around eight million telehealth services.
All North Coast practices are still offering face-to-face appointments, according to the NCPHN, and these were the main form of appointment for 15 per cent of patients. However, other GPs had moved to a 50-50 telehealth and face-to-face mix.
Phone appointments were found to be the most commonly used telehealth mode (87 per cent) on the North Coast, with the remaining 13 per cent of usage employing a combination of phone and video appointments.
“While some GPs (15 per cent) are not yet offering video appointments, we are keen to work closely with them to help resolve any barriers,” said Julie Sturgess, NCPHN Chief Executive.
“We continue to provide ongoing support to health professionals who are already offering video appointments, including allied health practitioners. Real-time video is the next exciting step in interactive patient appointments, and we are pleased to offer this hands-on support at no cost.
“Our Digital Health team has a lot of experience in implementing the healthdirectVideo Call platform and can identify and resolve most issues.”
Since mid-March, NCPHN has supported 135 health services from Port Macquarie to Tweed Heads to set up video appointments. To date, 2,484 video appointments have been conducted via the platform, with mental health services being among the most enthusiastic adopters.
“This is a great success story and a win-win for health professionals and their patients,” Ms Sturgess said.