Individuals who want to access to bulk-billed telehealth will now have to do so with their regular GP or practice, says the Department of Health.
The changes, announced today, are being celebrated as a triumph for the profession, following months of RACGP lobbying in Canberra.
Patients will now only be able to access telehealth MBS item numbers through a GP or practice that they have attended in the past 12 months, or by referral from a non-GP specialist.
But the changes won’t apply to infants (under 12 months old), homeless people, or people living in COVID-19 hot spots, who can continue to use telehealth as a new patient.
RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon said the changes were positive news for GPs and their patients.
“We know that patients who have long-term relationships with their GP have much better health outcomes, and that should also be reflected through the way we do telehealth,” he told The Medical Republic.
“These changes reinforce the role of the traditional general practitioner and help to add value to telehealth, because the patient will be talking to a doctor who has some background, or hopefully extensive background, on them.”
Under the previous model, GPs could access two MBS item numbers to consult patients remotely: one for video-conference consultations, and one for telephone consultations, if video was not available.
But there was concern about private providers of telehealth, such as Instant Consult and Script Now, which were able to capitalise on the changes to the MBS by offering bulk-billing consults and issuing prescriptions to first-time patients.
The telehealth item numbers, which are set to expire on September 30, are speculated to continue in some capacity, beyond the original deadline.
Dr Nespolon said this consolidation in how the telehealth items may be used made a stronger case for keeping them as a more permanent fixture in general practice.
“It helps to reinforce the argument that telehealth should be a normal part of general practice delivery in Australia, beyond September 30, and we welcome that the government has listened to us on this issue,” he said.