AUSTRALIA – Noting that telehealth was transformative to Australia’s universal healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian government is now planning to invest A$106 million (US$76 million) in permanent telehealth services over a four-year period.
According to the Australian government, the investment gives patients and doctors more flexibility in healthcare delivery by allowing general practitioners, specialists, and allied health professionals to continue consulting with patients via phone or video conference.
The government stated that some services are being modified to better align with evidence and expert advice. According to the government, this will ensure that patients receive high-quality, high-value telehealth as part of the range of Medicare services they use.
The Hon Greg Hunt MP, Australia’s Minister for Health and Aged Care, describes the investment as a “once in a generation change in the way the Australian people access healthcare.”
Minister Hunt stated that telehealth will continue to improve access to quality care, particularly for those living in regional, rural, and remote Australia.
According to HealthcareITNews, more than 16 million patients have received more than 80 million COVID-19 telehealth services through the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) since March. According to the report, approximately 89,000 providers are now using telehealth services.
The Australian government’s new investment in this space also includes A$31.8 million ($22.8 million) for the Workforce Incentive Programme, which will provide additional funding to general practices by including telehealth items in the calculation of Standard Whole Patient Equivalent.
While the government’s increased funding for permanent telehealth services is clearly a win for Australians, some experts argue that the recent changes to the MBS for telehealth are not.
In Australia, changes to the MBS for telehealth items include the removal of 128 items, the modification of 17 items, and the addition of two items.
Many items appear to be substituting video consultations or in-person appointments for phone consultations.
The Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) Online website has detailed factsheets and resources about Medicare telehealth services that outline the changes that went into effect at the beginning of the year.
According to a study conducted in October and published in the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, Australian patients prefer phone telehealth over videoconferencing, most likely due to technical difficulties associated with the latter.