Telehealth is great and has nothing to do with Jane Fonda

Article published 22 July 2022

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IT’s called telehealth, and even if you have never used it or never heard of it, you may depend on it one day. It’s great but there’s also something wrong with it.

No, telehealth is not a remote fitness program fronted by a movie star.

The picture of Jane Fonda has just been included to get you in and click on this article’s link, because telehealth is important to know about, so please read on.

Telehealth is a consultation by a patient with their doctor. It can be conducted by phone or by live video online. It can be a GP or a specialist. It takes the place of face-to-face consultations.

It has proven its worth in this pandemic of ours and continues to do so.

It’s also more than handy for regional and remote areas where there are not enough GPs to go around.

Even if you live somewhere not far from a medical centre or hospital, telehealth can be anything from useful sometimes to essential all the time. If you have a disability or your mobility isn’t what it used to be, telehealth often beats leaving home for a face-to-face consultation, battling transport and the elements.

So, telehealth is here to stay and needs to be promoted and encouraged.

That’s why, when the new Medicare Benefits Schedule was implemented on 1 July, it was great to see some telehealth consultations, both phone and video, added as a permanent Medicare fixture.

But the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners has pointed out that all is not as good as it seems.

For starters, while a variety of video calls are covered by Medicare, phone consultations longer than twenty minutes are no longer covered unless you’re in a remote area.

That’s phone consultations, online video consultations are not affected.

This is bad news for anyone in a regional or city area.

Even though your Wi-Fi connections can be spotty everywhere (city, regional and remote), if you want a long consult and you’re not in a remote area, you’ll have to power through using either a glitchy video call or finding a way to make it to the doctor’s in person instead of using the phone.

Granted, phone consultations are not ideal, but often they can be the best option.

Following protests, the Government has given in to some demands. It introduced a new temporary item to cover long GP phone consultations for prescribing COVID antivirals until 31 October this year only.

But what about those needing long consultations for other health problems?

Despite what this new Medicare schedule might imply about people being able to access online video meetings, there is still a digital divide in Australia.

Almost three-in-ten people in Australia are digitally excluded, a fancy way of saying they don’t have a computer or other device.

Two-in-five of those living in rural and remote communities have internet speeds at least twenty times slower than the minimum speed recommended for video calls.

For those who can’t afford the technology needed for a video call, those who have trouble working that tech or those who simply can’t access fast-enough-internet, phone consultations are much more reliable than video calls.

What are you expected to do when you need more than just a quick chat with their doctor?

Among the groups most impacted by this are people in rural areas, older people, people on low incomes, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people with a disability or limited mobility.

These are also the groups that are most likely to need longer, more thorough visits with their GPs, regardless of COVID.

Telephone consultations, of all lengths, are invaluable to these people and should be available to everyone no matter where you live or what health problems you’re dealing with.

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