Telehealth is taking off: How do you make it work for you?

Telehealth: Top tips to make virtual healthcare work for you

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CONNECTED: Telehealth has changed the way many seniors are approaching their healthcare appointments. Photo: iStock

CONNECTED: Telehealth has changed the way many seniors are approaching their healthcare appointments. Photo: iStock

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Virtual healthcare is fast becoming the new normal. So what do older people think?

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Living with Parkinson's disease amid the coronavirus restrictions has not been easy for seniors like my father-in-law.

From missing out on essential massages to having to forego weekly therapeutic treatments such as hydrotherapy and exercise classes he - like many other seniors living with a chronic disease - has had to make do with other options.

This has included going for local walks, spending more time in the garden, watching YouTube exercise videos and catching up with his doctors online.

And telehealth - which would have been unimaginable for him a few months ago - has now become a convenient reality. With a vital pain management appointment an hour and half away in Sydney booked in amid the pandemic, it was rescheduled as a telehealth appointment with doctors and patient all connected via his iPad.

Digital health applications have changed the way we're interacting with health professional appointments. And for some patients - like my father-in-law - it's working well. But are all patients ready and prepared for what this means?

Since Medicare-funded telehealth items were added to the Medical Benefits Scheme in late March this year, more than 10 million telehealth items were billed in Australia up until mid-May 2020, demonstrating a sharp increase in the adoption and growing interest in telehealth.

Michael Marthick is the founder and managing director of health care provider Care Connected. He said while telehealth has been available to rural and remote communities for many years, what we have seen since COVID-19 is a wider adoption of these platforms in urban Australia "so much so that telehealth is now part of our new normal".

Here Mr Marthick shares his top ten tips on how Australians can get the most out of their telehealth appointment:

Prior to your appointment

1. Look for a telehealth provider who is accredited to deliver telehealth services.

2. Check what benefits are available to you either via Medicare or your private health insurance to ensure you are accessing all benefits possible.

3. If you come from a non-English speaking background, seek out bilingual providers or check to see if translators are available.

4. Ask your healthcare professional about their data safety and privacy policies to put your mind at ease. Ensure they are collecting information to improve your care not collecting data for the sake of collecting data.

5. Check how to access your telehealth appointment prior to the day, and ask for a test run, to ensure you are comfortable with it and it runs smoothly.

6. Look for providers that can fit with your schedule and offer flexible appointment times, for example offer out of hours appointments.

On the day of your appointment

7. Be ready with any questions you may like to ask during the consultation and note them down.

8. Log in to your telehealth appointment a couple of minutes early so you are not rushed. If it's a video call appointment, ensure there is good lighting and that you are easily seen within the camera.

9. Request access for a carer or family member to sit in on the call too.

10. Enjoy the opportunity to attend medical appointments without leaving the comfort of your home.

Calls to extend funding

Mr Marthick is backing calls for the government to extend the temporary funding for telehealth services beyond September 30.

"We applaud the government for making telehealth more accessible to all Australians and call for funding to continue beyond September for allied health services.

"As awareness continues and patients become more comfortable with telehealth, we may see a demand for more remote care and an increase in remote monitoring to support chronic disease care. This could result in an expansion into Telehealth 2.0 using remote devices for 'at home rehabilitation' or for 'hospital in the home' models of care."

"Access to healthcare that delivers individualised programs that keep people out of hospital and engaged in an active life, whether they live in metro, regional or remote Australia are critical now and will continue to be during Australia's extended social-distancing phase" said Mr Marthick.

Australian Physiotherapists Association is also calling on the government to make the telehealth funding permanent.

APA National President Phil Calvert said funding of telehealth has demonstrated video consultations are safe, appropriate and cost effective for a vast number of clinical presentations.

"The fast tracking of telehealth funding by Medicare and health insurers was absolutely correct, but it needs to be extended beyond the current September 30 cut-off date," he said.

"Access to physiotherapy for Australians with disabilities or those who live outside of our major metro and regional centres is poor. It's important we offer solutions that provide equal access to the health services they need. Physio telehealth is safe, effective and affordable, which is exactly the type of health care we need to continue."

Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia CEO, Professor Jeff Dunn AO, said COVID-19 had highlighted an urgent need for new telehealth services.

"Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, our Prostate Cancer Specialist Nurses have been flooded with calls for advice and support from men with prostate cancer and their families.

"We've been struggling to answer them all. In the aftermath of this pandemic, it's vital no man is left behind."

Older Australians embrace telehealth

While there are many things that older Australians would like to see return to "normal" post- COVID, telehealth is the one change they are very keen to keep according to new research.

A study by the South Australia-based Global Centre for Modern Ageing (GCMA), has found telehealth - whether accessed by phone or online - has worked well for older Australians, with more than 60 per cent of people aged over 60 surveyed nationally saying they were willing to use it in the future.

The GCMA research is part of an ongoing study and has been released in a report Telehealth - Here To Stay? revealing that most older Australians who used telehealth during the pandemic found their experience to be similar to or better than a face-to-face consultation.

For both phone and online consultations, 85 per cent of older Australians said the quality of care/treatment provided was the same or better than normal, and 88 per cent said the value for money was the same or better than they usually experienced.

"Older Australians like telehealth for its convenience, reduced travel and ability to be conducted at home," said GCMA chief executive Julianne Parkinson.

More than two in three Australians (67 per cent) aged over 60 who used telehealth during the pandemic said they would feel confident using telehealth in the future. Nearly half (49 per cent) of Australians aged over 60 who used telehealth during the pandemic said they were likely to use telehealth after the pandemic.

The survey of more than 1200 people also discovered privacy concerns did not appear to be a major issue for older people using telehealth. Almost all of those surveyed (more than 95 per cent) aged over 60 said telehealth privacy was the "same as normal" or "better than normal" when compared to face-to-face appointments.

For online consultations, 95 per cent said appointment privacy was the "same as normal" or "better than normal". For phone consultations, 97 per cent said privacy was the "same as normal" or "better than normal".

"What is very apparent is that offering consultations via telephone as well as online is important to Australians aged over 60," Ms Parkinson said.

"Older Australians were more likely than younger Australians to have taken part in a telephone telehealth appointment during the pandemic. We found 44 per cent of people aged over 60 took part in a telephone telehealth appointment or consultation, versus 33 per cent of adults aged under 60."

In contrast, one in five older (20 per cent) Australians surveyed by the GCMA took part in an online appointment or consultation with a health professional during COVID-19.

"The experience of those who took part in digital consultations was positive," said Ms Parkinson. "We learnt that 90 per cent of Australians aged over 60 who took part in an online telehealth consultation found booking the appointment the same or better than a normal consultation. And 85 per cent of older Australians who took part in an online telehealth consultation found it easy or very easy to log in or set up their online appointment."

While a largely positive experience, 38 per cent of Australians aged over 60 did have some difficulties using telehealth.

Challenges included: the inability to have a problem examined or receive usual treatment; a less personal experience due to lack of body language and cues; less perceived warmth and less perceived care; difficulties for people with hearingimpairment; awkwardness, especially with a new clinician, and; tech glitches, a lack of appropriate tech and a lack of tech confidence.

Ms Parkinson said the disruption created by the pandemic had presented a unique opening for telehealth. "The positive sentiment for telehealth has created a window for the broader industry to secure the uptake of telehealth into the future by designing and delivering services to meet older people's needs.

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