- The use of Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) telehealth appointments during the COVID-19 pandemic commenced on 13 March 2020 and were scheduled to end on 31 December 2021.
- However, on 13 December, 2021, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced that MBS telehealth appointments would be a permanent feature of primary healthcare in Australia, which has been endorsed by both doctors and patients. This means that patients will be able to continue having telehealth appointments funded by Medicare in the same way as face-to-face appointments.
- The Morrison government has committed $106 million over the next four years to fund the implementation of the permanent telehealth services.
- The change has been extremely welcomed by the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) due to its copious benefits for so many Australians (detailed below).
FAQs about Telehealth
What is a telehealth appointment?
- A telehealth appointment refers to an appointment with a healthcare provider – ranging from GPs, specialists, nurses and allied health professionals – conducted by phone or video call.
Am I eligible for a GP telehealth appointment?
- In order to be eligible for a MBS-funded telehealth appointment, you must have an existing relationship with the GP. This requires you to have had a face-to-face appointment either with the specific GP, or another GP from the same clinic, within the last 12 months.
What are the benefits of telehealth?
- Continuity of care despite disruptions to normal life
- During the COVID pandemic, telehealth has allowed the continuity of care for millions of Australian patients where face-to-face appointments have been limited to reduce community transmission of the virus.
- Despite Australia’s high vaccination rates, it is inevitable that the pandemic will continue to affect our lives. Some health experts are predicting the virus will be affecting the world for the next decade. Telehealth allows patients to access healthcare in the safest way possible.
- Increased flexibility for both patients and doctors
- Patients who work long or irregular hours, or struggle to have time off work, have previously found it difficult to book appointments with their doctor in regular hours
- Clinicians are also able to work more flexibly with telehealth by organising their days to maximise efficiency
- Increased access to healthcare for Australians in regional and rural locations
- Many Australians living in regional and rural settings have previously struggled to see their doctor due to GP and specialist shortages in these locations. This has been exacerbated during the pandemic for patients living in border communities and their access to healthcare being limited by border closures.
- Rural healthcare providers have been described as “celebrating” the announcement by the federal government to make telehealth a permanent feature of primary healthcare. It has been especially welcomed by patients who require specialist doctors and psychology services, both of which are significantly limited in regional and rural settings. The access to mental health services is especially welcomed due to the spike in mental ill-health caused by the restrictions and lockdowns during the pandemic.
- Time efficiency
- Rather than patients having to travel either from rural settings to urban healthcare facilities, or city dwellers dealing with peak-hour traffic, telehealth allows patients to avoid commuting and can have their appointment at home, work, or elsewhere.
- Ease of accessibility
- Telehealth appointments vary in the platform they use depending on the healthcare provider, but generally are available on any type of phone for a voice call, and for smartphones, tablet devices, laptops and PC for video calls.
How do I book a telehealth appointment?
- Telehealth appointments are booked in the same way as you would book a face-to-face appointment. You can either call your local GP or some GP clinics provide online booking platforms via their websites.
Do I have to pay for my telehealth appointment?
- MBS- telehealth appointments are funded by Medicare and follow the same payment protocols as face-to-face appointments. Your appointment will be either partially or fully paid for by the federal government. (See Doctor Consultations for more detailed information).
Can I still have a face-to-face appointment if I want one?
- Both the AMA and federal government have highlighted that telehealth will always be an adjunctive mode of patient-doctor interaction and that there will always be an essential role for face-to-face appointments.
- During the COVID pandemic, it is generally be at your doctor’s discretion about whether they feel your condition can be managed via telehealth or requires a physical in-person appointment.
- You can always ask your local clinic or specialist for a face-to-face appointment if this is your wish, however, your doctor will make the decision based on the benefits and risks associated with a face-to-face appointment. The benefits include your doctor being able to physically examine you, an important element of some conditions such as injuries requiring dressings, but risks include both you and your doctor having possible exposure to the virus by interacting in a community setting. During the pandemic, telehealth remains the preferred means of doctor consultations wherever possible.