Call to re-instate, expand telehealth services ahead of July 1 cut-off

Telehealth services are to be wound back on July 1, 2022, but GPs are calling for the program to be extended

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GPs and advocates want to see the telehealth program extended to provide patients with more options on how they access medical care.

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GPs call for telehealth to be re-instated and expanded

Medical professionals are concerned the winding back of telehealth across Australia will disproportionately affect people living in regional and rural areas.

From July 1, general practitioners will be limited to no more than 30 telehealth consultations in a day for 20 days over a 12 month period.

Tasmania-based Newstead Medical practice partner Dr Toby Gardner said the timing was premature, with increasing COVID and flu diagnoses in the community.

"The people who would be most vulnerable will be those who live in rural communities and those without access to technology that we take for granted in the city," he said.

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Dr Gardner said the scaling back would have a flow on effect, with emergency rooms and hospitals likely to pick up the burden.

"Anytime where there's removal of telehealth items people are less likely to actually access medical care, particularly those living in rural areas," he said.

"So what happens is that people get a lot sicker before they present to the doctor. So then it becomes not a normal GP appointment, it becomes a hospital emergency department appointment."

Dr Gardner wanted to see the telehealth model expanded indefinitely to include more item numbers.

But not all see the move away from telehealth as problematic, including Northern Tasmanian breast cancer survivor, Elizabeth Blane.

PATIENT OPTIONS: Kirsten Pilatti, BCNA CEO talks with Elizabeth Blane in Latrobe, Tasmania during a Breast Cancer Network Australia event. Picture: Paul Scambler

PATIENT OPTIONS: Kirsten Pilatti, BCNA CEO talks with Elizabeth Blane in Latrobe, Tasmania during a Breast Cancer Network Australia event. Picture: Paul Scambler

For the past three years, Ms Blaine has used telehealth to meet with her oncologist for screening and surveillance appointments.

"When you go through your surveillance, you know, they examine you and make sure that there's nothing there," she said.

"With telehealth, I just felt, maybe just a bit left behind ... like I didn't matter."

Ms Blaine said there was a time and place for telehealth, including for general checkups with her GP, where there was an existing relationship and medical history.

Breast Cancer Network Australia chief executive Kirsten Pilatti said telehealth offered an excellent solution for people requiring a quick consultation or unable to travel, but was not without shortfalls.

"People are being told they've got breast cancer over the phone again, which is completely unacceptable from our perspective," she said.

"There's definitely a role for it to play. We want it to be extended, but we want consumers to be part [of] and drive the solution of the guidelines in place for telehealth so that it's used for good."

The move has prompted Australia's peak general practice union to ask the federal health secretary Brendan Murphy to reconsider the changes.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioner vice-president Dr Bruce Willett this week wrote to Mr Murphy asking him to defer making any changes to the service without first conducting a review to ensure patient care was not impacted.

Dr Willett said a comprehensive review needed to be undertaken before making any changes to telehealth to ensure services met the evolving needs of the primary health sector.

"The RACGP is concerned the circumstances have not changed since the decision to defer was made and that the reintroduction of these rules in July 2022 will generate unnecessary anxiety amongst GPs, potentially impacting on patient care," he said.

The tightening of telehealth services has also been raised as an issue by the Australian Medical Association (AMA), which said the changes would put patients at risk.

AMA president Dr Omar Khorshid said the government needed to consider the ongoing health environment and adapt as circumstances change.

"Telehealth has been embraced by doctors and patients alike. Proceeding with the July changes will put more people at risk of contracting the virus and make it more difficult for patients to access the care they need," he said.

Federal Health Minister Mark Butler did not respond when asked if he would extend the services but said he had sought feedback on extending some telehealth items.

"The Albanese government has sought advice about options to extend these temporary Medicare items beyond 30 June," he said.

"This consideration includes compliance measures related to telehealth."

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