10 million Aussie patients have taken up COVID-19 Medicare telehealth services

Approximately 28 million telehealth services have been provided in response to the global pandemic.

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In the period spanning 13 March to 8 September 2020, 283 new temporary Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) telehealth and telephone services were established in response to COVID-19.

These services, the Department of Health said, mirrored existing face to face services.

"These items were added to assist in reducing the spread of COVID-19 and protecting the vulnerable, while maintaining patient access to essential health services," the department said in a submission [PDF] to the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network.

Since implementation to 31 August 2020, Health said approximately 28 million COVID-19 telehealth services have been provided to 10.15 million patients by 76,400 providers.

It said of these services, approximately 23 million -- or 83% -- were provided by GPs, 3 million were provided by specialists, and 1 million were conducted by allied health providers.

Approximately 76% of the total COVID-19 telehealth services were provided in metropolitan areas, Health said, with a large proportion of services in rural and remote communities remaining face to face.

See also: Healthcare chiefs bemoan Australian medical sector remaining stuck on paper

GPs provided nearly 97% of coronavirus-specific telehealth services via telephone and only 3% via video conference. Using video conferencing platforms 60% of the time for the same telehealth services were specialist and allied mental health providers group. They performed 36% of COVID-19 services via telephone.

Between 1 April and 31 August 2020, GPs transitioned approximately 40% of their services to COVID-19 telehealth services, Health added.

Since July, around 50% of GP services in Victoria have been provided by telehealth, compared to 27% in New South Wales and 17% in Western Australia. Victoria, however, has experienced far more cases of COVID-19 than any other state, with stay-at-home orders pushing more people to use telehealth over face-to-face.

The 2018-19 Budget funded a national electronic prescribing system with an aim to improve Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme efficiency, compliance, drug safety and data collection, and to enable a more efficient and user-friendly system for patients and prescribers.

That work was sped up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Telehealth services were made available to all Australians in March and a fast-tracked e-prescriptions solution has also been pushed out.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) in July threw its support behind making e-prescriptions and telehealth a lasting feature of Australia's health system, even once COVID-19 restrictions are eased.

"While the benefits of telehealth extend beyond mere cost savings, the permanent adoption of telehealth will reduce costs across the health system while improving patient outcomes," the AMA said at the time.

On Thursday, Shadow Minister for Health Chris Bowen warned the Medicare rebates behind telehealth services are due to expire on October 1.

"Labor knows the pandemic is far from over, and supports calls from across the health sector for the items to be extended from 1 October," he said.

"Labor has also consistently called for Greg Hunt to reconsider the 2.92% private health insurance premium hike that is due on the same day.

"With premiums already up 30% under this government and many Australians struggling to make ends meet, hospital coverage is now at the lowest level in 14 years."

On Friday morning, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a AU$2 billion investment to extend a range of COVID-19 health measures for a further six months to 31 March 2021.

Medicare-subsidised telehealth and pathology services, GP-led respiratory clinics, home medicines delivery, and public and private hospital services will all be extended, as well as further investments in PPE, he said.

Updated 18 September 2020 at 9:54am AEST: Added AU$2 billion telehealth extension.

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