The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has welcomed the Federal Government’s extension to Medicare subsidies for telehealth consultations and urged the Government to closely consult with GPs on a long-term telehealth plan.
Earlier this year, the Federal Government heeded the RACGP’s calls to expand Medicare-subsidised telehealth (video and telephone consultations) to all Australians.
The Government today announced that the Medicare subsidies will be extended to 31 March 2021. They were due to expire on 30 September this year. Other health initiatives announced include backing for 148 GP-led respiratory clinics.
Acting RACGP President Associate Professor Ayman Shenouda welcomed the announcement.
“We are thankful that the Government has listened to the RACGP and extended these Medicare telehealth subsidies, which allow patients to consult with their GP remotely whilst minimising the risk of transmitting or spreading the COVID-19 virus,” Associate Professor Shenouda said.
“Patients and their GPs have embraced telehealth and more than 99% of GP clinics are offering these services. Telehealth has reduced potential spread of COVID-19 in the community, keeping patients and general practice staff safe.
“Medicare-subsidised telehealth has greatly improved flexibility for patients in accessing care. Telehealth consultations are particularly important in rural and remote areas where accessing healthcare services, including a GP clinic, can prove challenging.
“Not everything can be done by telehealth and we will still need to always offer face to face consultations.
“However, telehealth has become an important part of the service mix, particularly for patients known to the practice and people who have may difficulty leaving the home due to a disability, those with mental health issues or people who live a long way from health services.”
Associate Professor Shenouda said that GPs must be front and centre in the design of long-term telehealth arrangements beyond March 2021.
“The extension to March next year is welcome but the strong demand for telehealth means that these services will be needed beyond then,” Associate Professor Shenouda said.
“These services are flexible, convenient and in many cases the most efficient way of providing patient care. We can’t return to the situation where patients are forced to physically sit in front of their GP before they can get a Medicare subsidy. We need to ensure that Medicare-subsidised telehealth services are available for patients for years to come.
“The RACGP expects that GPs will be consulted and significantly involved in the development of what comes next. Nearly all GPs have altered how they operate and embraced telehealth services to care for patients so it’s vital that we are a key part of the process.”
The Acting President urged patients to take care of their health and wellbeing.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a very trying and anxious time and many patients have been hesitant to seek care, including from their GP. This is extremely concerning because when patients delay seeking care, their condition may deteriorate,” Associate Professor Shenouda said.
“Please consult with your usual GP for any health concern right away and remember that telehealth is available via telephone and video technologies. Not everyone is confident using video technologies and that is okay, an old fashioned telephone works just fine in most cases.
“The most important thing is that you take care of yourself and address any health concerns with your GP – we are there to help.”
Earlier this year the RACGP launched a nation-wide campaign Expert Advice Matters – which urged all patients to consult with their GP for any health issues. The campaign emphasised the importance of telehealth and telephone consultations as part of the options available during the COVID-19 pandemic.