Want to Skype your GP to avoid exposure to the coronavirus? Here’s what you need to know about the new telehealth option


Centaine Snoswell, The University of Queensland and Anthony Smith, The University of Queensland

From tomorrow, some Australians will be able to consult their doctor or other health professional with a bulk-billed videocall rather than in person, in a move designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus among vulnerable people.

This measure will also help reduce the risk of transmission to health-care providers.

Yesterday’s announcement of these new telehealth measures comes as the World Health Organisation has upgraded the status of the coronavirus COVID-19 epidemic to a pandemic.

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‘The doctor will Skype you now’: telehealth may limit coronavirus spread, but there’s more we can do to protect health workers

Who’s eligible?

People in home isolation or quarantine as a result of the coronavirus, and those at high risk of complications if exposed to it, will be eligible for bulk-billed telehealth consultations with doctors, nurses and mental health professionals.

Eligible vulnerable groups include:

  • people aged over 70
  • Indigenous people aged over 50
  • people with chronic health conditions or whose immune system is compromised
  • parents with new babies
  • pregnant women.

Existing Medicare-funded telehealth services in Australia normally refer to a consultation by videoconference, and don’t specify a particular software or platform.

However, yesterday’s announcement says these new telehealth services could be conducted by phone, or video, giving FaceTime or Skype as examples.

People in isolation or quarantine for COVID-19 will need to meet certain criteria and can videocall any eligible health provider.

However, those in vulnerable groups with a non-coronavirus matter can only videocall a health-care provider they have seen in person during the previous 12 months.

This may be a problem for people who do not have a regular health-care provider, or whose regular health-care provider is either ill-equipped or unwilling to provide consults via telehealth.

What are people eligible for and for how long?

Eligible people can not only access medical treatment by telehealth, they can also access mental health support.

The government acknowledges that home isolation, quarantine periods and/or the spread of COVID-19 can be stressful and could lead to mental health problems without support.

Other countries have also recognised mental health concerns. The World Health Organisation released advice this week on how to support the mental health of both patients and providers.

These newly announced telehealth measures are temporary, costing A$100 million over an initial period of six months. We don’t know whether the funding or time frame will be sufficient.

Telehealth in emergencies isn’t new

Telehealth has been used in Australia and overseas for decades. And in research to be published soon in the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare we discuss how there’s good evidence it’s effective, especially in disaster situations.

For instance, telehealth was used after Hurricane Sandy in the USA in 2012, after an earthquake in Japan in 2011, and during the Boston blizzard in 2014.

In our forthcoming research paper we also discuss issues associated with implementing telehealth.

Telehealth can be very useful for a broad range of clinical services, but it can’t replace all in-person consultations. Some assessments, and all procedures, will still need to conducted in person.

Some Australians will be able to consult their doctor by taking a Skype call on their smartphone. But not everyone has reliable internet access.

Patients also need access to a device capable of videoconferencing (for example, a phone, computer, or tablet), as well as a reliable internet connection.

About 85% of the population has internet access at home. So there are people who may not be able to use telehealth services from home.

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Effective uptake of telehealth also relies on clinicians changing the way they interact and communicate with patients, a process that can be challenging for some.

So we need to provide adequate training and education to emerging and current health-care workers. We also need to ensure the general public is aware of telehealth and understand how to access it.

What might happen in the future?

The uptake of telehealth in Australia has been somewhat slow and fragmented so far.

However, the use of telehealth during the coronavirus pandemic might change this. People may become more aware of telehealth and accept it.

If it was used routinely in every health service, it would improve access to health care particularly in rural and remote areas, reducing the need for extensive travel.

Routine use would also mean our response to future pandemics and disasters would be much more timely and effective.

Researchers from our team at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Online Health, Centre for Health Services Research and the NHMRC Partnership Centre for Health System Sustainability contributed to research mentioned in this article.The Conversation

Centaine Snoswell, Research Fellow Health Economics, The University of Queensland and Anthony Smith, Professor, Director of the Centre for Online Health, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Morrison government funds ‘pop up’ testing clinics and tele-consultations in $2.4 billion COVID-19 health package

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government will unveil on Wednesday a package of coronavirus health measures, including a network of respiratory clinics, a new Medicare item for tele-consultations, and a communications campaign.

The package, which comes as the number of Australian cases reached 100, will cost A$2.4 billion, which includes $500 million announced last week to help states with their costs on a matching 50-50 basis.

Read more:
Morrison government pledges funds to help states with health burden of COVID-19

The health measures precede the government’s multi-billion stimulus to address the hit the virus will deliver to the economy, which threatens to push Australia into recession.

Up to 100 “pop up” fever clinics will be established across the country, in a program costing $205 million.

These “one stop shops” will test people worried they may have the virus. They will supplement the work of GPs and state respiratory clinics.

As people become increasingly fearful about the virus, many are seeking tests, even though they fall outside the guidelines recommended for testing.

In Melbourne on Tuesday people queued outside the Royal Melbourne Hospital. In Perth there was a queue even before a new clinic opened at the Royal Perth Hospital’s Ainslie House, despite the clinic supposedly being for those at higher risk. In South Australia a “drive through” clinic has opened.

Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said that in the last few days there had been a “significant surge” in the number of people requesting testing.

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Politics with Michelle Grattan: Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy on COVID-19

Partly this had been sparked by some misinformation in the media suggesting everyone who had flu-like symptoms should be tested, he said. “We’re not saying that at the moment.”

Murphy said those who should be tested are returned travellers who develop acute respiratory symptoms or people who have been in contact with confirmed cases who develop acute respiratory symptoms.

The aim of the pop up clinics in the federal package is to deal with people with milder symptoms, taking the load off hospitals’ emergency departments and GPs, so that hospitals are only presented with the more serious cases.

Each clinic, staffed by doctors and nurses, would be able to see up to 75 patients a day over six months. They could operate as dedicated medical centres.

Health authorities and medical bodies will identify practices in regional, rural and urban areas. Some 31 Primary Health Networks will receive $300,000 to assist in identifying and setting up the “pop up” clinic sites and distributing protective equipment.

Up to an initial $150,000 will be given to help clinics start and offset losses from normal business.

The new Medicare item for telehealth will enable those who are isolated due to the virus to access medical services from home by audio or video. This will reduce risks of transmission from people going to doctors’ surgeries (and the inconvenience of consultations in car parks as doctors keep them out of surgeries).

The telehealth service, starting on Friday, will be bulk billed and available for medical, nursing and mental health medical staff to deliver services over the phone or through a video conference (including FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp). The new item will cost $100 million and run for six months, when it will be reviewed.

The telehealth services will be available to

  • people isolating at home on medical advice

  • those aged over 70

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged over 50

  • people with chronic health conditions or who have compromised immune systems

  • parents with new babies and pregnant women.

The telehealth arrangements will also mean health practitioners who are themselves in isolation will be able to continue to provide services, so long as they are fit enough to do so.

Read more:
‘Fever clinics’ are opening in Australia for people who think they’re infected with the coronavirus. Why?

The planned national communications campaign about COVID-19, including information on how to guard against the virus and what to do if you get it, will start within days and cost $30 million.

A wide range of platforms will be employed, and particular audiences targeted. It will use television, radio, print, digital, social media and displays on public transport and at shopping centres, as well as putting material in doctors waiting rooms. Market research and tracking will be used to refine the campaign.

Scott Morrison said Australia is “as well prepared as any country in the world” to deal with the virus, and the health package “is about preventing and treating coronavirus in the coming weeks.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.