Restrictions on telehealth set to start next week

From 20 July you will only be able to book a telehealth appointment with your regular GP.

health minister greg hunt

If you have been enjoying the ease of telehealth during the COVID-19 crisis, you may not be able to book appointments for much longer.

The government is introducing changes to the telehealth system, which will come into effect from 20 July, that will mean patients will only be able to book a telehealth appointment with their usual GP.

The federal government expanded Medicare-subsidised telehealth and telephone consultation to all Australians earlier this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to slow the virus spreading and ensure access to care for patients.

Last Friday, the government announced it was placing restriction on telehealth consultation with patients only able to consult with their regular GP in this manner, although there are exemptions for infants (under 12 months), the homeless and people in COVID-19 hotspots.

Federal health minister Greg Hunt said the changes would ensure patients continue to receive quality, ongoing care from a GP who knows their medical history and needs.

For the purposes of the changes a relationship between doctor and patient is defined as the patient having seen the same practitioner for a face-to-face service in the last 12 months, or having seen a doctor at the same practice for a face-to-face service during the same period.

The government “will closely monitor the impact of these exemptions and will consider further exemptions as necessary”, Mr Hunt explained.

“Requiring COVID-19 video and telephone services are linked to a patient’s usual GP or practice will support longitudinal, person-centred primary health care, associated with better health outcomes.

“This change … recognises that with restrictions now being lifted in many parts of Australia, it is important for patients to continue seeing their regular doctor.”

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) welcomed the announcement.

RACGP president Dr Harry Nespolon said the reform was key to ensuring the community continued to receive the highest quality care.

“The evidence shows patients who have an ongoing relationship with their GP report higher levels of satisfaction and better health outcomes – which helps keep patients out of hospitals,” Dr Nespolon said. “Good primary care saves lives and money in the long run.

“GPs and their practices are committed to providing ongoing care to their patients, even if a patient is new to the clinic, there is a commitment to continue to take care of the patient and whatever concerns they have beyond the initial contact.

“I urge all patients to use telehealth or telephone services connected to their usual GP or clinic. If you consult with your usual GP you will receive care informed by your medical history, and they can offer face-to-face consultations when needed.”

Dr Nespolon said the reforms came after the RACGP warned about the rise of corporate telehealth pop-ups, offering low value health services.

“These businesses promise a ‘quick fix’ for patients but there is no commitment to the ongoing care of the patient – the doctors won’t know the patient’s medical history or have a connection to their clinic,” Dr Nespolon said.

“The RACGP advocated strongly for expanded telehealth and telephone consultations to decrease the risk of COVID-19 spreading and make care more accessible for patients.

“But increasing access to care should never come at the cost of patient health and safety, which is why we welcome the government’s reforms.

“The RACGP is strongly in favour of retaining telehealth and telephone consultations beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. We will continue working constructively with the government on this to ensure patients continue to have access to flexible, comprehensive care.

“In the long term, telehealth and telephone consultations will make a real difference for all Australians, particularly for those in rural and remote areas where geography is a barrier, or who have difficulty leaving their home, such as older people or those with disabilities.”

The Consumers Health Forum of Australia (CHF) was also supportive of the changes, but wary about some patients who may fall outside of the scope of the changes.

“In general terms we support the decision by health minister Greg Hunt to limit Medicare payments for telehealth to consultations patients have with their regular doctor or practice,” the health forum’s CEO, Leanne Wells, said.

“This will ensure that people receive ongoing care from a practice that is aware of their clinical history and knows their circumstances.

“We hope this will encourage continuity of care, however we are concerned that, for some, this definition may be too rigid,” Ms Well said. “What happens to those people who have a relationship with a GP or practice, have not had contact in the last 12 months, and now find they need to?

“CHF research shows that most people – particularly families with children, people with chronic conditions and older Australians – prefer to always see the same doctor. However, this ideal is not always possible due to a range of circumstances such as when a patient wishes to change practices, moves home or town or doesn’t have an established relationship with a practice.”

What do you think about the restrictions being placed on telehealth from 20 July?

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    To make a comment, please register or login
    14th Jul 2020
    Trust same applies for specialists ongoing seen for years. Sad for drs who are suffering as Medicare rebate only.
    14th Jul 2020
    On the surface seems quite reasonable to me. How one could obtain proper medical services from a health professional who is not acquainted with the your health history seems fraught with danger. If one is unable to attend at the health professionals premises then a home visit should be approved. In recent years I have had home visits from my GP and a physiotherapist at nil cost to me.
    14th Jul 2020
    As a mostly housebound through chronic illness person I am very disappointed that Telehealth will be restricted only to General Practitioner appointments. This ruling leaves in limbo once again those too sick or disabled to physically attend their Specialist Doctor's appointments and who are denied equal treatment that the rest of the population enjoys. Surely the Telehealth program can be devised in such a way that is is protected from scammers and corrupters. To me it just smacks of 'who cares about the invisibly sick?' And we are forgotten and discriminated against once again!
    14th Jul 2020
    I was concerned a about specialist appointments too when I started reading, but then it says:
    "For the purposes of the changes a relationship between doctor and patient is defined as the patient having seen the same practitioner for a face-to-face service in the last 12 months, or having seen a doctor at the same practice for a face-to-face service during the same period",
    which should cover specialists and anybody else you see regularly. What a relief, as I have two already booked for a little later in the year.
    15th Jul 2020
    I hope you are right 52-kid
    14th Jul 2020
    I understand the move from a government’s perspective especially as every state and territory, except Vic, are opening up. You’d think that the teleconsultations would continue in Vic.
    I also concur with my fellow scribes’ comments.
    15th Jul 2020
    This is yet another example of people whining about the presumed loss of a TEMPORARY service that was initiated at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is absolutely right that people should take advantage of telehealth services with their usual doctor or practise and not simply a dial up service who they know nothing about and that knows nothing about them.

    The fact is people had a doctor or medical practice before the original lockdown and that was just 3 months ago. Nothing has changed. As for those whinging that they may move house, well, they would have needed to make a visit to a GP when they moved before and they can do so now. Anyone housebound would simply be in the exact same position they were in 3 months ago. Nothing has changed.

    And don't forget, all doctors offering telehealth services were/are also required to maintain face to face appointments for those people who needed it such as regular check-ups, tests, new diagnoses, vaccinations etc. Again NOTHING has changed.
    15th Jul 2020
    Appears to be fair enough!
    16th Jul 2020
    If necessary you can call for a home visit from an after hours service.
    However they are sometimes reluctant to go to some areas where there is a constant risk of abuse in some way. Some even have another person with them for their own safety. Sometimes there is a long wait though. I don't think this service is available in country areas. Maybe write a list of known medical conditions, medications you are taking and any known allergies + a list of emergency contacts. Ambulance staff always look there too

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