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Doctors call for telehealth to be permanent healthcare feature


Use of telephone and video consultations during the Covid-19 pandemic ‘has been a tremendous success’

The overwhelming demand for telehealth services during the Covid-19 crisis suggests they must become part of reforms to the country’s health system, the Australian Medical Association has said.

AMA president Tony Bartone said around 10 million telehealth consultations had been provided—by telephone or video—through the Medicare national health system since the services were introduced in March.

“Telehealth is not and never likely to be a complete substitute for face-to-face visits to the doctor but does provide a convenient and highly appropriate option that can supplement visits to the practice in person,” he said in an AMA statement.

The AMA is the main professional support association for medical practitioners and medical students in Australia. It also advocates for changes to government health policies.

Bartone said the decision to make Medicare funding available for telehealth services was “driven by the need to reduce the risks of the transmission of Covid-19 and to protect vulnerable patients”.

“However, it has also given us the opportunity to trial telehealth in the Australian context—with current arrangements due to expire in September,” he said.

“While there have been some important learnings along the way, the overall sense from GPs, other specialists and patients is that it has been a tremendous success. We must now turn to the task of seamlessly and fully integrating telehealth into day-to-day general practice and other relevant medical specialties, and ensuring continuity of care for patients.”

He suggested there was a risk that ‘pop up’ or uncoordinated telehealth consultations could fragment patient care and “blur the important distinction between the prescribing and dispensing of medicines”.

“Most telehealth consultations to date have been by telephone rather than video, which reflects the speed at which telehealth has been rolled out and the limited preparedness of medical practices and patients to utilise video consultations,” Bartone said.

“Both options can provide a quality service for patients, but the longer term may see a greater emphasis on video. Reliable, robust and very fast internet across the country must be a priority to make telehealth work. And we must note that, for some patients, the phone is their only option, and they must not be discriminated against.”