As Omicron case numbers continue to climb and the healthcare system buckles under the pressure, the commitment by the government of an additional $24 million and temporary changes to telehealth for general practitioners and specialists have all the appearances of providing additional flexibility to supporting patients safely.
But can the 1300 Health service and GPs continue to bear the brunt of the predominantly mild to moderate cases – while also managing vaccine booster delivery and stepping up to immunise children aged five to 11?
The move comes after national cabinet’s January 5 decision that RAT tests would no longer need to be confirmed by a PCR test. Regrettably it also coincided with a national, if not global, shortage of rapid antigen tests – effectively leaving those that were sick or experiencing symptoms to fend for themselves, or lay siege to their GP.
Trying to limit the risk of increasing exposure at their practices many doctors have turned to telehealth.
Widely accepted as playing a key role in improving connected care and helping people stay safe, Health Minister Greg Hunt believes telehealth or telemedicine consultations are a vital support for those that are unwell. The changing mix of face-to-face and telehealth consultations has been significant, with 36 per cent of all consultation items now provided by telehealth compared to 1.3 per cent before the pandemic.
Acknowledging the very real challenges being faced by hospitals, and the renewed support for telehealth, RACGP President Dr Karen Price cautions however, that adding further pressure on the primary care sector is short-sighted.
According to Dr Price, the combination of shifting to a testing protocol hindered by national scarcity means the reality of undiagnosed people in the community is a major concern for GPs, who are already under extreme pressure.
“We’re in a very resource-constrained health emergency – and I do not say “emergency” lightly – but we’ve got to make sure the health system still goes on,’ said Price.
There are still only so many hours in a day, and with 2.8million Australians visiting their GPs every week, there is a very real risk that many patients are putting their primary care on hold.
Already, there have been significant changes in the use of healthcare from the suspension of non-urgent elective surgery, social distancing restrictions that have discouraged people from leaving home, public fear of contracting or spreading the virus in health facilities, and increased household financial pressure that reduces the affordability of out-of- pocket payments.
Graham Gordon, CEO of Gardian, and developer of the innovative Self Check app and Test Tracker management system that enables organisations to ‘test, track and trace’ for business continuity and staff wellbeing, said: “The pandemic has accelerated innovations that were already underway in the digital health ecosystem across Australia.
“We’ve all seen firsthand how Covid-19 has been a catalyst for clinicians and consumers to embrace, use and build their trust in digital health, but with everything else that GPs are dealing with there is a very real opportunity for MedTech companies to lend a helping hand.
“The past several months has seen thousands of paramedics, nurses and doctors stood down over mandatory vaccination requirements – these highly skilled, and absolutely essential workers could be providing essential telehealth support,” said Gordon.
“When launched, the Gardian Self Check and Test Tracker system had the capability of notifying users of their positive result and immediately setting up an appointment at a PCR testing station. With the recent changes, we were able to pivot the technology and now offer a comprehensive virtual care service for covid positive individuals. They can be tested, receive their result, and be monitored in their home for seven days by our dedicated telehealth team.
“Our registered clinical staff are able to offer clarity in terms of information thereby alleviating anxiety, and conduct follow up checks without incurring any further exposure. Of more importance, however, is our ability to identify and assist those that may be immune-compromised, pregnant or have co-morbidities, and be quickly able to determine whether they need additional medical attention.
“Ultimately, we’re there with them, we’re a part of their care and their solution,” adds Gordon. “And at the end of isolation, we can even provide a medical certificate for their safe return to work.”
With the right safeguards, our telehealth service is an added tool in a broad-based system that can deliver improved accessibility, quality, safety and efficiency for better health.
Gardian is an Australian digital health company developing software and medical devices that provide a better way to care.