Telehealth: support for the Australian health system

Tuesday, 31 March, 2020

Telehealth: support for the Australian health system

The Australian Government has announced several new temporary bulk billing items — including expansions to telehealth services — that have been created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure continued access to essential Medicare rebated consultation services.

As of 30 March 2020 these items have become general in nature and have no relation to diagnosing, treating or suspecting COVID-19 to allow providers to continue to deliver essential healthcare services to patients in their care. The MBS telehealth items are available to GPs, medical practitioners, nurse practitioners, participating midwives and allied health providers.

Videoconference services are the preferred approach for substituting a face-to-face consultation; however, providers can offer audio-only services via telephone if video is not available.

Services can be provided through widely available video calling apps and software such as Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, Duo, GoToMeeting and others.

Taking advantage of health contact centres

With COVID-19 raging across the world, phone-based health services are proving to be vital in supporting consistency and confidence in the provision of health services.

Standards Australia is encouraging those in the sector to look to Australian health contact centres to assist the health system.

“These are unprecedented times and we are in the midst of responding to a crisis the likes of which we have never seen before,” Standards Australia CEO Adrian O’Connell said.

“Amongst the uncertainty, the one thing we can be sure of is that our national health system will be stretched to its limit.

“While some GPs and similar services have set up processes already to support patients in getting advice remotely, Standards Australia wants to take this opportunity to highlight there is guidance available, in the form of this Australian Standard, to assist in managing health contact centres for the Australian public,” O’Connell continued.

While telehealth started as a service for regional and remote communities, health contact centres have grown out of the need for similar services in major metropolitan areas. Health contact centres have developed as effective and efficient tools to provide Australians with a range of health-related support, not only in rural and regional areas but also in metropolitan hubs and capital cities, particularly in the case of a pandemic.

Standard AS 5205:2019 presents health contact centres with requirements that ensure the quality of health and health-related services provided through any communications medium.

The centres respond to health-related enquiries via phone or any other non-face-to-face contact. There are a number of providers around Australia such as Health Direct Australia — an online search will provide a number of options and examples of dedicated services such as the COVID hotline.

“When calling a health contact centre, Australians should be expecting the same type of care and management of their case regardless of which service they call,” O’Connell said.

“These centres have the potential to help our under-pressure health system given the scope of medical advice being provided.

“If we think of the type of information being provided over the phone it is important there are clear guidelines on how staff in these centres deal with each call.

“The best thing we can do for our frontline health workers is follow the advice and stay home unless absolutely vital. There are providers that can facilitate medical advice over the phone, and this standard is one way we are keen to support this service as much as possible,” O’Connell explained.

“Staying home if you are unwell is the advice, and we are hopeful this standard can make it possible for more people to receive medical advice without jeopardising the health of the doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers already working so hard.”

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