Telehealth in aged care: does it have a promising future?
During lockdowns, senior Australians used fewer in-person visits with their GPs and telehealth visits became a core service for non-urgent care. Now, after months of near-normalcy, the COVID-19 delta variant is sending the numbers of daily cases climbing to their highest point yet and driving cities back into lockdown.
In this latest wave of the pandemic, ensuring that senior Australians continue to have safe access to health care is an important priority. The government recently approved new Medicare items for telehealth consultations, and in a statement about the new items, Health Minister Greg Hunt cited telehealth’s “important role in supporting Australians through the pandemic”.
With these new Medicare guidelines, it’s clear that telehealth is here to stay. But will it be able to effectively meet the needs of elderly Australians? It’s one thing for doctors to offer telephone consultations; it’s another for seniors to utilise them effectively.
As an aged-care provider headquartered in Perth and with additional offices throughout the country, we’ve had a front row seat to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare access. We wanted to find out how comfortable Australians are with telemedicine and how likely they are to choose it when other options are available, so we conducted a survey to find out.
More than a temporary service?
Our survey revealed two key findings: most Australians are comfortable using telemedicine, but they prefer visiting their doctor in person.
Our first question asked “Do you feel comfortable using telemedicine technology?”, and we were surprised that a majority in all age groups said yes. Among young adults aged 18 to 39, 78% said they felt comfortable with telehealth software; that percentage decreased to 56% among seniors over age 65. Older people are generally less comfortable using new technology tools, and they may be more concerned about internet privacy, but even among seniors, a majority of those we surveyed said they’re comfortable with telehealth visits.
We speculated, however, that this might be a comfort born from necessity. We know that many Australians, including seniors, have been forced to learn how to use telehealth technology due to lockdowns, making it difficult for them to access face-to-face care. This forced use could help them feel more comfortable using telemedicine tools. But do they prefer it, and will they continue using it when in-person care is available? That’s the question we wanted to explore.
Therefore, we also asked directly about our survey participants’ preferences. In our second question, we asked, “Would you prefer an in-person visit or remote telehealth consultation by your doctor?” On this question, Australians of all ages agreed: a significant majority would rather see their doctor in person. Specifically, 79% of ages 18–39, 76% of ages 40–64 and 84% of those 65 and older said they preferred to visit their doctor face to face.
Given this strong preference for face-to-face healthcare, the question still remains: Is telehealth here to stay? Or will it grow to become an integral part of aged care?
Telehealth medicine is not a new practice in Australia, although the pandemic has greatly expanded its use. Telemedicine has long been a key component of access to specialist care for the approximately 28% of Australians who live in rural and remote areas. And even though most people who live in rural areas are below age 65, those communities include a significant percentage of elders, especially Indigenous elders. As the trend continues for more Australians to age in place instead of moving to residential communities for aged care, the number of seniors living in remote areas will continue to grow.
For seniors who are already receiving home care, especially in remote and rural areas, telehealth visits can offer the best of both worlds. Home care packages can be used for virtual doctor visits with a GP as well as a specialist. When in-person care is necessary, combining a virtual GP video call with a home visit with a nurse could provide many clinical assessments and even treatments. Combining home care with telemedicine could fill in many gaps in access, enabling elderly Australians to live comfortable, healthy lives in remote communities and minimising the need to travel for care.