Telehealth to stay after pandemic success

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Telehealth is now a permanent fixture of Australia’s healthcare system after its successful introduction at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said while nothing beat face-to-face health services, telehealth was an important part of the system for people with issues such as mobility problems, those juggling young children and people with less flexible workplaces.

Health Minister Greg Hunt says telehealth has changed the way Australians can access healthcare.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“It came about because of the pandemic, but it has changed the way Australians can access healthcare,” he said on Monday. “What this will do is give Australians and their GPs the choice.”

There have been more than 86.3 million telehealth consultations since the start of the pandemic, with GPs as well as specialists including psychologists and psychiatrists.

Telehealth was initially offered as a temporary pandemic measure. Medicare items for phone and video consults have been extended several times over the past two years. They were due to expire at the end of this month, but late last year the federal government flagged its intention to make telehealth permanent.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Dr Karen Price said making telehealth permanent was a “significant step forward” for the country’s health system.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has proven to be a valuable complement to face-to-face care, it increased access to care for patients in need and no doubt saved lives,” she said.

“I know patients and GPs alike will be glad and relieved to hear that these services will remain and will continue to support access to care for people across Australia.”

Mr Hunt said telehealth was not just being made permanent for GPs but for all services that had used or relied on it during the pandemic.

“It’s a continuation of the existing measures across the work of GPs, allied health and specialists and I want to thank everybody for their involvement in that,” he said.

Making telehealth permanent is part of a $300 million funding package for primary care, which includes $58.8 million for the Better Access mental health scheme, extending the number of Medicare subsidised mental health sessions to 20 a year.

The funding also includes $41.2 million for regional and rural health services through incentives for doctors and nurses to move to regional areas. Under the scheme, from January next year doctors and nurse practitioners will have their university HELP debts waived if they work in remote areas for a certain period of time.

Dr Price said the rural GP workforce shortage was a complex problem, but research showed incentives such as the one announced by the federal government had been shown to help.

“GPs who do train in rural or remote areas are far more likely to remain living and working there after seeing all the opportunities and benefits of the career and lifestyle,” she said.

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