The Federal Government has announced a $106 million investment over four years to support the permanent adoption of telehealth services for Australia’s primary healthcare sector, following strong uptake of remote health services during Covid lockdowns.
Telehealth has been “transformational to healthcare delivery”, the Government said in a statement, underpinning “much of [its] successful Covid-19 response”.
“Telehealth has been transformational to Australia’s universal healthcare and has played a critical role in ensuring the continuity of care for hundreds of thousands of Australian patients during the Covid-19 pandemic, protecting the health of patients and health professionals,” the Government said.
The service enables General Practitioners (GPs), healthcare specialists, and allied health professionals to consult with their regular patients by phone or online.
Since early March 2020, more than 86.3 million Covid-19 telehealth services have been delivered as part of the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS), with upwards of 16.1 million patients accessing the service.
More than 89,000 healthcare providers have also taken advantage of telehealth services during this time.
“[We] had a 10-year plan to bring on telehealth,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said. “We were able to do it, with the support of our GP’s and our specialists, in 10 days.”
“What this will do is give Australians and their GPs and their specialists a choice as to what is the optimal way to deliver the service going forward. And it is a very important role, face-to-face.”
As part of the $106 million investment, $31.8 million will go towards the Workforce Incentive Program (WIP), providing additional funding to general practices to include telehealth as part of their Standard Whole Patient Equivalent (SWPE) calculation, used to determine their funding arrangement under the WIP scheme.
In addition to its $106 million commitment to telehealth, the Government announced a further $202 million investment across Australia’s primary healthcare sector, including $58.8 million for mental health, $77 million to improve access to Medicare, and $41.2 million for regional and rural health services.
Addressing a press briefing, Dr Karen Price, head of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, praised telehealth as a “remarkable and innovative solution which enables our country to stay as safe as possible” – which she noted is particularly beneficial for those at high risk of Covid infection.
“It also enabled a significant number of GPs with medical conditions themselves, or those who had family with vulnerable medical conditions, to keep working and to maintain that vital connection with long term patients.”
Price recognised the significant value of telehealth to rural, remote communities and Indigenous communities.
“The RACGP has been working hard with the Government in highlighting the needs of communities, especially those with more vulnerable patients for whom telehealth has been lifesaving beyond the needs of an infectious diseases pandemic.”
“This news of a permanent solution for a modern and busy world beyond Covid is very, very welcome. It is a great legacy, [offering] great information to complement usual GP care.
“Patients in the profession as a whole have been waiting and hoping on this announcement.”