How telehealth can keep you safe

Australians will be able to access bulk-billed telehealth appointments with doctors and other health professionals for six months, the government has announced.

The move is particularly relevant to older Australians, with the prime minister urging anyone over 70 to exercise strict self-isolation as the nation battles the coronavirus pandemic.

Telehealth is the delivery of medical services through information technology and telecommunications.

Telehealth consultations are conducted over the telephone or via video conferencing apps such as Zoom, WhatsApp, Skype and FaceTime on phones, tablets or computers. This allows patient and practitioner to interact safely and minimise potential transmission of the virus.

Patients won’t have to take public transport or sit in waiting rooms. And they won’t be out-of-pocket for GP services, mental health treatment and chronic disease management if they can be conducted remotely. Any prescriptions will be sent to the patient’s preferred pharmacy and doctors will be offered incentives to compensate for the increase in bulk-billed services.

Doctors can diagnose safely from home or office and preserve vital protective supplies such as masks and gowns. The bulk-billing incentive will be doubled for general practitioners.

Telehealth is not compulsory; if a patient has no other option, an in-person consultation is still available. And there are some conditions that cannot be dealt with remotely.

The federal government terms the initiative ‘Medicare support at home’, saying it will extend telehealth to the whole population.

Health minister Greg Hunt says expanding telehealth to mental health and other services is a ‘key weapon’ in the fight against coronavirus. “Everything that can be done by telehealth will be done by telehealth.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says older Australians should self-isolate for their own protection to the “maximum extent practical”.

Labor health spokesman Chris Bowen supports the moves. “Telehealth is essential to reducing the community spread of COVID-19 and protecting doctors, staff, and patients from this virus. It is all about making the community safer,” he said on Monday.

Consumers Health Forum CEO Leanne Wells says the new measure is a “win, win” for patients and doctors.

“This development highlights how much we can better maximise available capabilities, even the telephone, to improve our campaign against coronavirus. 

“We welcome the doubled bulk-billing incentives too. It is so important that people losing jobs or taking pay cuts can access affordable general practice.

“This will take pressure off hospitals and emergency departments and allow people to access essential health services in their home, while supporting self-isolation and quarantine policies.”

An extra $74 million will be provided to focus on mental health services, as authorities acknowledge that Australians isolated by the health crisis will need more support.

The government’s digital health portal, Head to Health, will provide information on maintaining good mental health during the pandemic and while in self-isolation.

Extra funds will also be provided to support people in aged care who risk becoming socially isolated due to restrictions on visitors, with extra volunteers to be trained to connect with older people online and by phone.

The new arrangements will run until 30 September, when they will be reviewed.

The official guidelines on coronavirus explain why these measures are so important to older Australians.

“The risk of serious illness from COVID-19 increases with age,” the guidelines state. “The highest rate of fatalities is among older people, particularly those with other serious health conditions or a weakened immune system.

“If you are an older person (60+ years of age), you should consider limiting physical contact with other people, especially young children, and avoiding large groups of people. You may wish to limit your visitors to one or two people per day and limit the duration of visits. This will help protect you and help stop the spread of disease.

“It’s possible that children and young people may be carriers of COVID-19 but show no symptoms, making it extremely difficult to tell if it’s safe for them to visit an older relative. These measures may be stressful for you and your loved ones. A chat over the phone, video call or email – rather than visits in person – is a good precaution and could help stop the spread of COVID-19.

“If you start to feel unwell, phone the National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080, or your GP, who will be able to provide you with further advice.”

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Related articles:
Over-70s told to stay home
How to correctly self-isolate
Preparing for coronavirus lockdown

Written by Will Brodie

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