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.
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.
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.