Anywhere Healthcare adds to specialist panel for national roll-out

Medibank Health Solutions plans to have a panel of up to 30 specialists offering video consultations by the end of September as part of the national roll-out of its new Anywhere Healthcare telehealth service.

Anywhere Healthcare was officially launched nationally in May following a scoping period in the Queensland town of Gladstone and in Darwin last year.

The service is free to GPs and offers a panel of specialists who work as part of a virtual private practice, with current disciplines including paediatrics, psychiatry, general medicine and dermatology. All appointment bookings and session management is handled by Anywhere Healthcare.

Sam Holt, Medibank Health Solutions' director of online care, said that by September, the panel will also include geriatricians, psycho-geriatricians, neurologists, endocrinologists, ophthalmologists, oncologists, cardiologists and obstetrician/gynaecologists.

Medibank Health Solutions has had a large telephone-based triage business in Australia for a number of years, and has contracts with both governments and the corporate sector. It is contracted to provide the after hours GP helpline and healthdirect Australia on behalf of the Australian government, and also offers some web-based services following its acquisition of McKesson Asia Pacific in 2011.

Mr Holt said moving into video consultations for GPs in rural and remote areas was the next logical step.

“We saw that there were a myriad of opportunities, and we decided to concentrate initially on what we call our virtual healthcare clinic, which is the service where we offer our panel of specialists,” Mr Holt said.

“We did a lot of market research in the early days to determine what it was that GPs were looking for when it came to telehealth. What we learned was that GPs were quite technology-agnostic – the RACGP didn't come out and mandate that GPs should or shouldn't use a technology solution like Skype, for example – what the doctors told us they wanted was a service that was efficient for them to use.

“GPs told us that they wanted a specialist who would dedicate time to telehealth. If a specialist in their own private practice is consulting with a telehealth patient as part of their traditional clinical practice with their face-to-face patients there is a very high likelihood that they won't run on time.

“Even though GPs are remunerated under the telehealth incentives scheme, they don't believe that the incentive is enough to warrant them sitting around for unnecessary amounts of time with patients or tying up rooms waiting for specialists.

“So from that market research we went about creating what we believe is the first truly GP-centric telehealth service. Even though we are a specialist practice, we run a GP-centric model. It is all about customer experience and simplicity and becoming a part of a GP's day to day practice.”

The service was first rolled out in Gladstone, which has a dearth of local specialists but a growing population, Mr Holt said. Gladstone now houses around 80,000 people and has grown rapidly over the last few years, in particular following the opening of the Curtis Island LPG development.

“They have a lot of healthcare access problems and we saw that as a good target as a community that would benefit from the service,” Mr Holt said. “It wasn't a pilot per se but an opportunity for us to gauge what would the likely volume of consultation or referral requests be so that when we launched the product nationally, we could ensure that we had the right balance for client demand.

“Typically we find 70 to 80 per cent of GPs in a region that we target will take up the service, and once we get to that saturation point we often do a little bit of consumer-based marketing just to let consumers know that the service is available. That supports the GPs in terms of raising awareness of the service.”

The service is free to GPs working in telehealth eligible service areas, who are able to claim the MBS telehealth rebate. Anywhere Healthcare employs the specialists on a sessional basis and handles all of the billings.

It uses the Vidyo video conferencing solution, which is available for download onto PCs and as an iPad app, but Mr Holt said there were no set-up costs for GPs. To date, all of the consultations that have taken place have been bulk-billed, meaning there are no out of pocket expenses for patients.

“The only thing a GP needs to do in order to access our service is to download the Vidyo platform. That's the only thing that they need to download. It is free for them to download and there is an app if they want to use an iPad. If the GP rings us at nine o'clock in the morning, we can set them up and get them ready to do consultations within an hour.”

Anywhere Healthcare runs a full practice management support team and offers a telehealth concierge service with every call. “The first person you would see if you were a GP or practice nurse is our support staff, and we will do a quick technical audit to make sure that everything is working, the audio and video is working well, and then we'll hand you over to the doctor.

“We aim to provide referral turnarounds in under two weeks, so for patients who wait many months for a specialist appointment, we can get them in to see a specialist in under two weeks and in many cases in a matter of days.”

The service currently has a panel of 12 specialists who work on a sessional basis and don't see other patients face to face during those sessions. Mr Holt said more specialists were currently being recruited, with up to 30 planned by next month.

As Pulse+IT reported recently, the federal government has asked the Department of Health and Ageing to investigate whether to open up direct GP or specialist to patient video consultations on the MBS, which many telehealth providers are watching with anticipation.

Mr Holt said while there were no plans as yet, direct to consumer services are definitely on the horizon. The main hurdle for many people living in rural and remote regions is the quality of internet provision, he said.

“One of the challenges of providing telehealth at scale is not so much the IT component or billing patients, whether it is user pays or a Medicare-funded model, it is more around ubiquitous access to robust internet connections,” he said.

“Today we have over 400 GPs that use our service and we have done testing with close to a thousand different sites around Australia, and what we have learned is that there is still today a requirement to add an element of technical assistance in telehealth.

“Once things like the NBN have been rolled out and are being accessed by the large majority of the population, I think you will be in a better position to start being able to offer fully automated services that allow patients to go online and find a GP and have a consultation without any other human interaction.

“So the answer is yes, we see it as an exciting opportunity but we are really focused on growing and maximising the market that we have carved out with our specialists.”

Posted in Australian eHealth

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