Since last year, almost 16 million Australians have received subsidised telehealth services.
The Australian government has put out A$106 million ($76 million) over four years to fund "permanent" telehealth, which will allow for more flexibility in healthcare delivery and continual health consultations by phone or online.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
The federal government believes telehealth has been "transformational" in healthcare delivery and has "underpinned much" of the COVID-19 response. "[Telehealth] has played a crucial role in preserving the continuity of treatment for hundreds of thousands of Australian patients throughout the COVID-19 epidemic, safeguarding the health of patients and health workers," the government said in a statement.
Since March of last year, over 16 million patients have received over 80 million COVID-19 telehealth services under the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS). In addition, telehealth services are presently used by around 89,000 providers.
The A$31.8 million ($22.8 million) telehealth investment comprises A$31.8 million ($22.8 million) for the Workforce Incentive Programme, which will offer extra payment to general practices by including telehealth items in the calculation of Standard Whole Patient Equivalent.
The permanent reforms to telehealth are "far overdue," according to Dr Silvia Pfeiffer, CEO of telemedicine business Coviu. Still, they indicate the government's commitment to the future of the country's digital healthcare system. For many years, the firm has advocated for more digital capabilities in the healthcare sector.
The reforms, she noted in a second statement, empower doctors since they allow them to work from home, serve patients without geographical limits, or become sub-specialists in a specific area of interest.
Dr Pfeiffer said that the permanent changes confirm the essential role that telehealth services played during the epidemic and will continue to develop a more fair and accessible healthcare system for all Australians in remote and metropolitan regions.
THE OVERALL CONTEXT
The government extended its supply of telehealth services till the end of the fiscal year in June earlier this year. Accordingly, it has increased funds for this purpose by A$114 million ($88 million) in the 2021-22 Budget.
The current telehealth funding is part of a $220 million investment in the country's primary care system totalling A$308.6 million. It contains the following items:
- A$58.8 million ($42 million) will be spent to continue the provision of subsidised mental health care until December 2022.
- A$41.2 million ($30 million) would be spent to encourage physicians and nurses to work in rural and regional regions.
- A$77 million ($55 million) to add additional tests and treatments to the MBS, particularly those for heart and renal disease, as well as to improve access to allied health services and wound care; and
- A$25.6 million ($18 million) for COVID-19 efforts, including the creation of a new MBS item allowing health professionals to conduct COVID-19 Vaccine Suitability Assessments in a patient's home without GP supervision; an increase in funding for the Primary Health Networks Vulnerable Vaccination Programme; and the extension of the Commonwealth Vaccination Clinics' operations.