Telehealth- New Medicare Funding released to combat Coronavirus

Dr Katie Stirling                                                                                                                                     13th March 2020

On March 12, the World Health Organisation formally declared coronavirus a pandemic. Australian authorities are focussed on limiting the community spread to (1) enable the healthcare system to appropriately respond and (2) avoid widespread illness for as long as possible, until a vaccine is available. The development, testing, and production of a vaccine is likely to take some time, although clinical trials are set to commence shortly. There are also concerns that the spread of COVID-19 may coincide with the seasonal influenza outbreak, creating even greater risk for vulnerable populations e.g., older adults and people with existing medical conditions. This week the Australian government announced $100 million in funding for telehealth services as part of the $2.4 billion package to combat coronavirus.

What is telehealth?

Telehealth refers to when a health professional consults with a patient via video call. Sometimes referred to as online therapy, digital health, or video conference, telehealth enables patients to access support remotely from any location. Rather than coming into a practice or health service, the patient will join the consultation using secure video conferencing software. Sessions are offered in much the same way they would if a patient was to walk into a practice, only they will be talking to their health professional via video call.

How will telehealth assist in limiting the spread of COVID-19?

Telehealth will help limit the spread of coronavirus by limiting the number of infected individuals (particularly where COVID-19 is not yet confirmed) attending practices and potentially contributing to the spread of the virus. Controlling the outbreak of the virus is a key strategy in managing the impact of COVID-19, as we can already see with the cancellation of many public events. This is particularly important in health settings for two main reasons 1) people who are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of coronavirus are frequent users of health services and 2) protecting our health workforce is critical in not only being able to successfully treat the impacts of coronavirus but also to meet our communities ongoing health demands. 

How will telehealth help protect healthcare workers?

At a time when we are most dependent on our healthcare workforce, they are also the most vulnerable. People attend health and psychological appointments when they are unwell because they still require ongoing treatment. Healthcare workers have been required to self-isolate, and rightfully so in the event of any suspected contact. This means we will be faced with a reduced workforce at a time when there will be increasing demands for services. Telehealth will assist in limiting the likelihood of health professionals contracting the virus and also ensuring that when they are required to self-isolate, in the instance of mild or no symptoms, can continue to provide health services. Strategies such as telehealth will be imperative in meeting the current and increasing demand for health services.

New funding for telehealth

Many health professionals recognise the value in using telehealth services to ensure accessible health care.  The Australian government currently funds the use of telehealth for people living in rural and remote areas. Many doctors and psychologists are already familiar with telehealth having provided telehealth consultations to patients living in these communities. Currently individuals living in rural or regional communities are able to claim a Medicare rebate for these services, helping to reduce the out-of-pocket expense for the patient. However, these services are not funded by Medicare for people living in metropolitan areas, resulting in a significant expense to the individual. People living in major cities and urban areas are able to access Medicare funding for the same services face-to-face but not if they use telehealth. 

The announcement this week from the Australian government suggests that Medicare will provide rebates for telehealth for people (with certain criteria) living anywhere in Australia, thus removing the current geographical restrictions, as part of the plan to manage coronavirus.. Current information suggests telehealth funding will be provided for (1) people who are in home isolation or quarantine, as a result of coronavirus and (2) people at high risk of contracting coronavirus including people aged over 70, people with chronic diseases, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 50, people who are immunocompromised, pregnant people and new parents with babies.

Healthcare workers are waiting in anticipation to find out more about what exactly this will look like and how they will be able to implement this funding on the ground. The Australian Government has indicated that more information will be provided today. 

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