Despite the release last Friday by Australia's Department of Health of new item numbers for telehealth, lobbying continued this week by a number of doctors' groups as well as the Consumers Health Forum to allow any patient consultation to be handled by telehealth if clinically appropriate.
There was a slight relaxation of the rules this week to remove the term “usual GP” from the requirements, allowing a doctor from the same practice to see a patient remotely if their usual doctor isn't available. Midwives and obstetricians have also been given item numbers to use telehealth to monitor women remotely, but there is still a great deal of confusion out there.
As the Australian government ups the national response to the coronavirus outbreak by banning non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people from Monday, the federal Department of Health on Friday released a package of welcome measures to try to help manage the coronavirus outbreak and the massive pressure it is destined to place on our healthcare system.
The department has made available 30-odd new MBS items that will allow GPs, specialists, nurse practitioners, psychologists and occupational therapists to treat patients remotely, either by video or telephone. The items cover not just those diagnosed with COVID-19 or requested to quarantine themselves, but vulnerable groups like the elderly and those with chronic illnesses.
As the coronavirus outbreak continues to escalate amid personal protective equipment shortages and indecorous scuffles over rolls of dunny paper, we find ourselves asking a simple question. If now is not the time for the Australian government to finally drop its intransigence and introduce an MBS item number for GP telehealth, then when is?
Doctors' groups have been calling for the capability for years, particularly for housebound patients and those in residential aged care, but so far GPs have only been allowed to claim for remote consultations under very limited circumstances. This week, Australia's chief medical officer Brendan Murphy finally admitted that the government had listened and was considering the option, telling a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday that it was also considering the possibility of allowing video consults with elderly patients and those with chronic diseases who would prefer not to venture out at the moment.