The RACGP has welcomed the Federal Government’s decision, which comes after months of strong college advocacy.
Patients will now only be able to access telehealth services under the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) through their regular GP or practice – where they have been an active patient within the past 12 months – or through a referred non-GP specialist.
RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon welcomed the reform, which will ensure both convenience and appropriate high-quality care for patients.
‘I am very pleased the Government has listened to the concerns of our GPs,’ he told newsGP.
‘When the RACGP pushed for telehealth to be funded under Medicare, our intention was always that these services would strengthen the GP–patient relationship – that is, with their regular GP, who can also offer face-to-face consultations when needed – and to ensure continuity of care.’
The changes, which won't apply to infants (under 12 months old), homeless people, or people living in COVID-19 hot spots, were announced on 10 July and follow months of the RACGP lobbying the Government on behalf of GPs across Australia.
The college has been particularly concerned about the rise in low-value pop-up telehealth services, including Instant Consult promoted by Chemist Warehouse.
Priceline pharmacies have also offered a service called Script Now for several years, which result in some patients obtaining a prescription without consulting a GP.
The RACGP cautioned the public against using services disconnected from their regular GP or practice, highlighting the increased risk for inappropriate practice and fragmented care.
Dr Nespolon said the telehealth businesses that emerged during the pandemic ‘completely undermine’ the high-quality services offered by general practices across the country, and misdirected Government funds.
‘Something had to be done,’ he said.
‘At the RACGP we recognised the threat these businesses posed to both health outcomes of our patients, as well as to the viability of traditional family GP clinics, particularly those in rural and remote communities.
‘Our current health crisis has reaffirmed the significant and integral role that general practice plays, and the last thing we need is practices shutting their doors.’
The RACGP was part of efforts that led the Government to first announce $669 million in funding for telehealth in March at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, fast-tracking years of reform in a matter of weeks.
Patients and practice have since embraced telehealth, making it easier for the community to access high-quality and personalised care when and where it suits them.
The newly restricted access to telehealth means patients will be able to continue to discuss their ongoing health and wellbeing with a GP who knows them, their circumstances and their history.
The college has highlighted the particular benefits this offers for vulnerable patients, including the elderly and those with chronic disease, as well as offering accessibility to those who would normally have to travel hours to see their GP.
It has been speculated that the telehealth item numbers will become a permanent fixture of general practice beyond the 30 September deadline and pandemic, when the current program is due to expire.
A spokesperson for Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said in May that the Minister was engaging in planning a ‘long-term future’ for telehealth, and was seeking advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.
Dr Nespolon said the RACGP will continue to lobby for the rebates to be made permanent.
‘The RACGP is strongly in favour of retaining telehealth and telephone consultations beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,’ he said.
‘In a time of crisis, general practice has shown its ability to adapt and with the use of technology overcome barriers of accessibility, while keeping our patients safe.
‘We hear GPs concerns and the college will continue engaging in robust dialogue with Government.
‘Our advocacy is far from over.’
The article was originally published by newsGP and is reproduced with its permission.
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