In the most far-reaching change for general practice in a generation, telehealth will be broadened to include all Australians and new incentives introduced to keep GPs and patients safe during the pandemic.
An estimated $500 million in new telehealth measures and incentives for GPs has been announced following strong RACGP advocacy to keep patients and frontline doctors safe from the coronavirus.
The package includes opening up telehealth and telephone Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) items to all Australians, doubling the bulk-billing incentive for GPs, and the introduction of a new incentive payment to help general practices stay open to provide face-to-face services for patients with conditions that cannot be treated via telehealth.
The range of services GPs can now provide over phone or video have also grown to include mental health treatment, chronic disease management and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health assessments, as well as services to people with eating disorders, pregnancy support counselling, services to patients in aged care facilities, children with autism, and after-hours consultations.
Launching the package today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the changes are about ‘getting health services into your home.’
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the changes are a ‘radical transformation’ of the way healthcare is delivered.
‘As of tomorrow, we will have universal telehealth available in Australia. It’s a decade’s worth of work in a matter of days,’ he said.
Minister Greg Hunt thanked Principal Medical Adviser – and former RACGP President – Professor Michael Kidd for the work his team had done, as well as the RACGP and other peak bodies.
Professor Kidd described the changes as the most dramatic of his whole career.
‘From tomorrow morning, as a patient you can reach out to your GP, specialist or other healthcare provider. If you’re a GP, you will be able to reach out to their patients to make sure they are okay and adhering to their plans for management of chronic disease,’ he said.
‘We know that during a pandemic, one of the greatest risks to the population is if we see a collapse of services available to patients with chronic health or mental health conditions. The measures put in place will ensure the people of Australia continue to have access to high-quality [medical services].’
Professor Kidd thanked the peak medical bodies and health organisations that have worked at an ‘extraordinary level’ to make this happen.
In a release, Minister Hunt said telehealth is a ‘key weapon in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic’.
‘Australia’s primary health workers are our frontline in leading the fight against this pandemic,’ he said.
The welcome news is set to continue for general practice, with Minister Hunt indicating that private billing for telehealth and telephone items will be permitted for non-concessional patients, with an official announcement expected within a fortnight.
The changes will begin from 8.00 am 30 March:
Items for telehealth/telephone consultations will mirror general practice, other specialist, and allied health item numbers
Doubling the bulk-billing incentive payment for pensioners, under-16s and concession card holders
Doubling of Quality Improvement Practice Incentive Payments (QI PIP) to support face-to-face consultations
The RACGP has actively lobbied for the changes to keep GPs safe through major reductions in face-to-face consultations and a shift to telehealth, as well as allowing practices to weather the coronavirus storm.
RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon hailed the package as a major win for Australia’s GPs.
‘It is positive news that the Federal Government is listening to the RACGP’s calls at this critical time – telehealth is a key weapon in the fight against this pandemic,’ he said.
‘The reason we have been pushing so hard for the telehealth expansion is because GPs on the frontline battling COVID-19 know that it will make a real difference in limiting the spread of the virus.
‘It is vital to provide extra support to keep general practices open so they can continue to provide essential support to their communities. Like the multitude of other small businesses, general practices have seen the number of patients drop and we need our practices to stay open during the crisis and beyond.’
Dr Nespolon said it is important to note that the MBS items apply to telephone consultations as well as video calls.
‘We need to be technologically agnostic and not have the public or GPs think that this MBS item is limited to video consultations,’ he said. ‘An old-fashioned phone will do just fine.’
Telehealth is seen as a vital way of keeping GPs safe, allowing patients who are self-isolating or quarantining to still get access to medical care while minimising exposure to their doctor.
The sweeping changes are among the largest announced for general practice in decades, and will be in place at least until 30 September, after which time they will be reviewed.
The Government consulted widely before announcing the changes, collaborating directly with the RACGP, the Australian Medical Association and other stakeholders.
Patients are being advised to discuss whether telehealth or face-to-face consults are the most appropriate with their GP.
The general practice package was the largest plank of a wider suite of measures boosting services during the pandemic, with mental health and family violence service providers also receiving a funding boost to help telephone services expand to meet significant and growing demand.
Other nations around the world have been moving to implement telehealth during the crisis, beginning with China’s early move to get half of all consultations done by phone or video.
The UK and US and other affected nations are also moving to telehealth.
Expanded telehealth items as announced on 29 March: Review full item descriptors and notes via MBS Online
Detailed fact sheets on the temporary telehealth bulk-billed items for COVID-19 are available on the Department of Health website. And GPs who would like more information and advice on primary care telehealth consultations should access the new RACGP guidelines on the college website.
The article was originally published by newsGP and is reproduced with its permission.
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