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Telehealth becomes permanent part of the health system

This week the federal government announced telehealth will be permanently funded through Medicare.

Telehealth has added a layer of convenience and safety for patients and GPs and there is now a guarantee it will be locked into the health care system for both GP and non-GP specialist services. The AMA is disappointed, however, with some of the detail that the Department of Health released following the Government’s announcement, showing that telephone access will be restricted to a greater extent than had been flagged during discussions over the last several months. 

AMA President Dr Omar Khorshid said telehealth has been embraced by both doctors and patients, giving people access to care while reducing community transmission of the virus.

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen temporary MBS arrangements put in place to support patients to access medical care via the telephone and video.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is still not over, and telehealth will now be able to continue to play a significant role in keeping the community safe, particularly in outbreak situations. It will protect the vulnerable members of the community and help ensure practices can stay open, servicing the community.

“We know just how critical it is to ensure practices can remain open during the pandemic and telehealth, combined with adequate provision of personal protective equipment to medical practices are key to continuing to provide services for patients.”

Dr Khorshid said telehealth improved access to healthcare for people who found it difficult to take time off work; could not leave children or people they were caring for and who live out of town and away from their GP or non-GP specialist.

“A face-to-face visit to a doctor will still remain an essential part of our health system. However, Medicare was established in 1984 well before people had access to mobile phones or video conferencing and expanding access to telehealth is an overdue reform, which brings Medicare into the 21st century,” Dr Khorshid said.

The AMA fought very hard for a fair and workable package, pushing back against early proposals from the Department of Health that would have significantly curtailed access for patients. While the final position reached by the Government did not satisfy all of the AMA’s requests and is not as extensive as the current temporary MBS items, it represents a significant leap forward when compared to what existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The AMA will continue to advocate for telephone items in order to avoid the inequities of access to healthcare that may result from the Government’s decision to focus on video conferencing for many consultations items.

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