Why are Australian GPs doing relatively few video consultations?
In May and June this year, only three per cent of GP telehealth consultations were conducted by video conference, despite the two Australian GP colleges and Medicare all stating a preference for the use of video rather than phone as a substitute for an in-person consultation.
Statistics derived from Medicare data for May and June 2020 show that about a third of GP consultations were by telehealth. Of this:
- 97 per cent of GP telehealth consultations were by phone
- The number of video consultations was highest for patients in the 25-44 age group (consistent with age group distribution in the Australian population)
- The proportion of telehealth consultations for females was higher than the proportion of in-person consultations for females. Conversely, the proportion of telehealth consultations for males was lower than the proportion of in-person consultations for males.
Medicare has not yet reported data for July 2020.
The use of telehealth in general practice has increased worldwide since the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic. This seems to have been primarily in response to the imperative to reduce the risk of transmitting SARS-CoV-2 infection, a risk that is obviously inherent in in-person consultations, even with personal protective equipment (PPE).
This increase in the uptake of telehealth in general practice has been observed across many countries, with different health systems, different funding models, and different economies. However, there are few data and published reports on telehealth and general practice in the COVID-19 era.
In Australia, we have been able to access, analyse, and report data on video consultations and phone consultations, as these are linked to the temporary COVID-19 Medicare item numbers introduced on 13 March 2020.
The UK National Health Service also reports some data. In July this year, the NHS reported that for general practice appointments in England, 50 per cent were in person, 45 per cent were by phone, 0.4 per cent were online, and 4.6 per cent were by ‘other modes’.
There are two caveats in interpreting these data. Firstly, the data are for appointments with GPs and with practice nurses. Fifty-two per cent of these appointments were with GPs but there is no breakdown of the mode of appointment by GP and by practice nurse.
Secondly, ‘online’ appointments include both video consultations and non-video online consultations such as webchat and voice over internet protocol (VOIP) calls.
Currently, no data have been reported on the uptake of video consultations in general practice in the COVID-19 era in the USA, Canada, NZ, India, China, or countries in Africa. Articles in the press in all these countries report that the uptake of telehealth has been ‘high’, but this has not been defined, and it is not known what proportion of telehealth encounters are by phone or by video.
In a recent article in The Conversation on Canada's experience, Ahmad Khalid argues that telehealth should be the primary way to deliver healthcare in Canada for four reasons: improved access to care; more efficient clinical practices; evidence-based decision making; and financial savings for individuals and for the health system.
As an interesting international perspective, one of the champions of telehealth in the USA is Donald Trump. In March this year, Mr Trump introduced changes which led to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) funding telehealth services for people in rural areas and for people over 65; and the Department of Health and Human Services relaxing federal privacy laws, allowing providers and patients to use everyday platforms such as Skype and FaceTime.
The role and advantages of telehealth
With the impetus of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and the imperative to provide non-in-person consultations, telehealth has become integral to general practice in Australia for treating patients:
- with COVID-19 (85 per cent of patients with COVID-19 are managed in the community)
- with suspected COVID-19
- at increased risk for COVID-19 and/or its complications (‘vulnerable patients’)
- who want to reduce the risk of getting SARS-CoV-2 from attending a general practice
- who are worried about any aspect of COVID-19 and its effects (physical, mental, and social) across the spectrum of general practice (acute care, chronic disease management, preventive activities, etc).
Telehealth also enables GPs to work from home, and to avoid in-person consultations. This is important for GPs who are at increased risk of getting COVID-19 and/or its complications, due to their age or due to disease, and for GPs who plan to continue to work when in quarantine or self-isolation.
In many instances, a video consultation has advantages over an in-person consultation, and advantages over an audio-only consultation.
Video consultations enable rapport, indirect physical examination, and mental state examination. A video consultation enables observation and interpretation of the GP’s and the patient’s facial expressions and non-verbal language.
Patients can send photos and files to the GP, securely and encrypted, through the video link. GPs can similarly send the following to the patient photos, files, referrals, investigation requests, patient instructions and information. However, prescriptions should not be sent to patients electronically; they can be sent to pharmacies by email (if ePrescribing is not available).
Although video cannot be the default mode of consultation in general practice, it can be considered as an alternative to any in-person consultation that does not require direct physical examination.
The uptake of telehealth, and Medicare
It is easy to speculate about the facilitators and barriers to the uptake of video for non-in-person consultations in general practice in Australia. I have described these in an article in Insight+.
Barriers for GPs include: negative attitudes to video; unfamiliarity with video; the perception that the time taken to set up a video consultation will encroach on the time available to attend to the patient; interruption and/or disruption to workflows in the clinic; low competence and/or low confidence with the technology, equipment, and software; and “it’s easier to pick up the phone”.
It seems likely that that the uptake of video in general practice will increase with time and familiarity. Specialists have been using telehealth since Medicare introduced specialist telehealth item numbers in 2011, and based on May 2020 data, 16 per cent of specialist COVID-19 non-in-person attendance item numbers were for video, compared with three per cent for GPs.
The COVID-19 temporary MBS telehealth item numbers are due to expire on 30 September 2020. What happens next is unclear; the Australian Medical Association (AMA), the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM), and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) have been advocating on behalf of GPs for the retention of telehealth services.
Since the introduction of the COVID-19 temporary MBS telehealth service item numbers in March 2020, telehealth has evolved to become an integral part of Australian general practice. Telehealth will have a developing and ongoing role in pan-COVID and post-COVID general practice, in Australia and worldwide.
The Australian government must recognise this, by retaining and enhancing telehealth in general practice.
GPs should consider increasing their use of video for consultations for patients who have COVID-19, and for patients across the spectrum of general practice. GPs have a role in providing support and advocacy for their patients to use video for consultations.
ACRRM and RACGP should scale up their support for video in general practice by providing advocacy, and by providing online workshops and online modules for professional development, so that GPs can upskill in video consultations.
Further research is desperately required to evaluate the role of video consultations in general practice, and to inform ongoing development.
Dr Andrew Baird is a general practitioner at the Elwood Family Clinic in Victoria and a tutor at the University of Melbourne's medical school.
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Posted in Australian eHealth