9 October 2019

Telehealth gets a green light for the bush

General Practice Rural Technology

Farmers on isolated and drought-stricken properties will now be able to consult their GP via video chat with no out-of-pocket fees, the Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA) says.

The details of 12 new telehealth item numbers on the MBS were announced this week by the Department of Health. The tele-consultations will allow patients living in the two most remote classification areas (MMM 6 and 7) to access GP and allied health services from November 1 this year.

The decision was made after significant pressure from the RDAA and other key rural health stakeholders.

RDAA President Dr Adam Coltzau said the new items would make a real difference to the healthcare available to Australia’s most remote residents.

“We know there is a group of patients out there in remote Australia, busy farmers for example, who are struggling to keep their farms afloat, who simply don’t have the time to get to town and see their doctor in person,” he said.

“These item numbers will allow their regular GP to provide care remotely, via videoconference, to ensure their treatment or disease management remains current.”

But the RDAA said it had reservations about the requirement for patients to have three face-to-face consultations every year in order to be eligible to access the item numbers.

“Unfortunately, there is a cohort of patients, sometimes with a chronic disease such as diabetes, predialysis chronic kidney disease, or increasingly depression or other mental health concerns, in our most remote locations who just don’t travel the sometimes hundreds of kilometres to see their GP on a regular basis,” Dr Coltzau said.

“And this is exactly the patient we were hoping to target with these item numbers.

“These patients typically might see their GP for their annual check-up thinking that is enough, but often when managing medication or ongoing issues additional consultations are invaluable.”

Dr Coltzau said the need for three face-to-face visits could severely limit the cohort of patients who were able to access these items, and these were the patients who would benefit the most from the additional care.

In addition, the availability of videoconferencing connectivity and facilities in some remote regions was another concern for ensuring patients had access to the new service.

“The requirement for videoconferencing is a concern, because in some remote locations the internet connectivity is not always reliable. Satellite broadband can be affected by a range of issues, including weather, and if something goes wrong with the hardware it can take months to get a technician out to fix it,” Dr Coltzau said.

The RDAA said it would like to see the requirements changed so that while videoconferencing should be attempted, if the connection was to fail, consultation by phone may proceed.