Pulse+IT Blog

Hunt for the Man from SNOMED River

Australia's Health Minister Greg Hunt had a nice little announcement yesterday, revealing that since March 13, there have been 10.4 million services delivered to 5.71 million patients by telehealth, with $536.5 million benefits paid, and close to 70,000 healthcare providers have used telehealth services.

It's a pretty enormous number and comes as Greg himself is being lobbied pretty hard to continue with MBS-funded telehealth in the future. GPs in particular seem to like it although they are champing at the bit over the requirement that COVID-19 patients and vulnerable groups be bulk billed. The move is on now to keep some form of publicly subsidised telehealth, with the AMA yesterday issuing a strong call for it to be retained.

Hospitals dial up remote monitoring

Much has been written in these pages and others about the way telehealth has fundamentally changed primary care during COVID-19, although whether that change will continue into the future is still a matter of debate. We are hearing more positive things about the Australian government's plans to continue with Medicare-funded telehealth after the pandemic, although our readers are hedging their bets on whether they think this will come to fruition.

We asked in our poll last week whether you expected to see MBS-funded telehealth continue after the pandemic. Lots of people doubt it, but a small majority is more positive, with 58 per cent saying yes and 42 per cent saying no. We are hearing that Health Minister Greg Hunt is keen, but the big sticking point for general practices in particular will be whether the items are required to be bulk-billed or not. If they are, we believe widespread provision of telehealth will prove financially unsustainable for general practices, and things will revert to business as usual.

The doctor will call you now

There was good news for telehealth fans this week with new data about take-up in general practice and acute care emerging, topped off by Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt dangling the potential of a permanent role for publicly funded telehealth in the post-pandemic future.

A spokesperson for the minister told the Sydney Morning Herald this week that he had been lobbying for telehealth to continue after the pandemic. Considering Greg is in the position of actually being able to do something about it, we hope he does more than just lobby.

The new data from Melbourne's Outcome Health POLAR research backs up the anecdotal evidence that most telehealth consultations are being done by the phone, although the numbers the data has revealed are stark. Of the remote consultations conducted since mid-March by 1000 practices in NSW and Victoria, just five per cent are being done video, or just two per cent of overall consultations. People are still turning up to see their doctor in substantial numbers – POLAR's figures show 60 per cent of consults are still being done face-to-face – which might have something to do with people coming in for flu shots. The data is also showing that orders for pathology and radiology tests are way down.

Pandemic forces change of pace

It has become a cliché in hurry in these unprecedented times but the speed with which the health IT sector has had to adapt to the global pandemic has been stunning to watch. Healthcare usually changes at a snail's pace, for good reason, and health IT is no different. We asked in our poll last week if you thought the health IT industry has successfully risen to the challenge of COVID-19. Not surprisingly, the sector was positive about itself: 79 per cent said yes, 21 per cent said no.

And just as the dealing with a crisis playbook has been thrown out the window, so has years of recalcitrance on the part of the healthcare system and its policy designers in taking up new and not so new technologies. It took a global pandemic to finally get telehealth on the front foot and everyone is doing it now. It has been quite stunning to see how fast the local industry has been in developing solutions for users, with a plethora of video conferencing solutions now available.

eScripts on the fast track

Pulse+IT had a bit of a dig at the announcement a month or so ago by Australia's Department of Health that it would pull off a ”development sprint” over eight weeks to get electronic prescriptions happening in the face of the pandemic.

We were highly cynical that it could be achieved in such a timeframe (and for just $5 million), but we might be laughing on the other side of our smug face soon enough as the GP software vendors seem to have pulled off the miraculous and are now on track to make the capability available next month at the earliest.

ANNAs flattening the curve

If like Pulse+IT these days you are getting your jollies hunting down maps and graphs of the coronavirus outbreak, you might have come across the great work being done by Financial Times data-visualisation journalist John Burn-Murdoch. Each day, he tweets out multiple visualisations of the pandemic and its growth in multiple countries, large and small.

He likes to keep his eye on the disasters in Italy, Spain, the UK and the US of course, but also regularly mentions certain countries that appear to have managed the outbreak pretty well, especially the ANNAs: Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Austria.

When the virus is over

After the virus, are we ever going back? We've been chatting to a number of experts in the field of telehealth this week and the consensus seems to be that now that the dam has broken, it is highly unlikely that we will revert to business as usual after the pandemic is over. Healthcare professionals will see that it is not always necessary for patients to present themselves in person, and we live in hope that funders like Medicare will no longer fear that the system will be rorted and instead embrace the savings and quality of care that can be achieved.

We are closely watching how things are panning out for the healthcare system in locked-down New Zealand, where some general practices simply will not see a patient unless they have been triaged by phone first. Hospitals are doing that for outpatients too, telling patients not to present unless specifically asked to. One DHB has even launched a fundraiser to buy remote monitoring devices for chronically ill patients to try to keep them at home. As Australia's CSIRO showed four years ago, widespread remote monitoring could save billions every year if fully embraced. Now would seem the time to seriously consider it. Things have changed utterly and we don't think they'll ever go back.

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