Telehealth slowly builds as incentive comes to an end
Almost 170,000 telehealth services have been provided to over 62,000 patients by more than 9700 providers under Medicare-funded arrangements first introduced in 2011, the latest figures from the Department of Health show.
In a briefing last week to the Australian Telehealth Advisory Committee, chaired by the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM), DoH provided figures showing the growth of telehealth under the MBS Telehealth initiative, with 25,000 services provided this year alone.
In 2011, the Labor government introduced two incentives: one allowing a higher MBS rebate for specialists and GPs or nurses doing video consults, and one an “onboard” incentive that paid a lump sum, initially $6000, for GPs, specialists and residential aged care facilities to invest in telehealth equipment and services.
The then-government announced in 2013 that the Telehealth On-Board Incentive program would come to an end on June 30. Healthcare providers have until December 30 to submit claims that are eligible for incentive payments, but they will not be paid to claims submitted after that date.
The Medicare rebates are expected to remain in place, subject to the Coalition government's budgetary plans.
In 2011, the government was optimistic that the range of incentives would increase the use of telehealth and it set a goal of 495,000 telehealth consultations by July 2015. That is unlikely to be reached without further programs to increase uptake.
In the original plan, the onboard incentives were to be reduced from a $6000 upfront payment to $4800 in July 2013, $3900 in July 2014, and $3300 in July 2015. That was later cut back by a year.
The government also introduced a new 15km geographical requirement between specialist and patient location that saw many GPs in outer metropolitan suburbs and regional areas become ineligible for the MBS telehealth rebate.
The latest quarterly figures show that 6390 general practitioners have provided a service, along with 3300 specialists, 40 nurses or midwives and according to Department of Human Service's figures, 221 residential aged care facilities.
In the first quarter the rebates were available – July to September 2011 – 1800 services were provided. That has built steadily by several thousand services per quarter over the following two and a half years to reach 25,489 in the January to March 2014 quarter.
The range of specialist disciplines is broad, with psychiatry the most popular, followed by consultant physicians, rheumatology, paediatrics, dermatology and gastroenterology.
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