The role of video telehealth in supporting Australia's COVID-19 vaccine rollout
The force of the pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for Australia’s healthcare system. Now, with the COVID-19 vaccine being rolled out across the country, Australia’s healthcare system is continuing to be stretched.
Throughout the pandemic, telehealth has proven its value to the industry, consumers and healthcare practitioners alike, with a whopping 97% of Aussie GPs now using telehealth to provide healthcare services, compared to just 15% before the pandemic. Additionally, the federal government recently announced that telehealth support as part of the Medicare Benefits Schedule has been extended, meaning it is still a cost-effective and safe way for Australians to consult their healthcare providers as we enter this next stage of COVID normal.
Telehealth can play a critical role in supporting the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Overseas, the UK and US are using telehealth to improve vaccine efficiencies, from addressing patient concerns to supporting patient follow-ups. This reveals an opportunity for telehealth to be similarly leaned on here in Australia.
The role of video telehealth
Telehealth provides an alternative to many in-person consultations and provides an important tool for ensuring accessible health care. Phone and video telehealth are the common modalities; however, there can be limitations to phone consultations, such as not being able to physically see a patient’s facial expression.
Advantages to video telehealth include enhanced diagnostic accuracy and rapport building, more accurate decision-making, improved visual cues, better communication and reduced medication errors. Other benefits for practitioner and patient alike include convenience, accessibility, time saving, infection control and increased appointment flexibility.
Addressing patient concerns
Patients seek health information from trusted sources, including their doctors and allied health practitioners, and the sharing of this information is critical to maintaining a healthy society. In this way, health providers play an important role in ensuring patients are educated on the COVID-19 vaccinations, the process and what to expect. Further to this, because the vaccine rollout is still so fresh, it’s understandable that patients have questions and concerns, so seeking advice from a healthcare practitioner can go a long way in ensuring patients make informed decisions.
In fact, patient education and communication are known to increase compliance and help improve health outcomes. Experts estimate that at least 70% of the population must be vaccinated against COVID-19 to achieve herd immunity. Yet, only a quarter of Australians said they were very confident in the vaccine development process.
Telehealth can help facilitate patient education through video conversations, helping to dispel concerns about the vaccine and reduce scepticism through speaking with a professional. In this way, video telehealth reinforces strong doctor–patient communication and engagement, helping to improve overall healthcare outcomes.
We obtained clarification from the Federal Health Department — the Medicare items relevant to vaccination advice are available for telehealth reimbursement, so patients should be encouraged to make use of this opportunity to seek clarification about whether a vaccination is appropriate for them.
Supporting women’s health
Expecting or soon-to-be-expecting mothers require closer medical support and guidance when making their COVID-19 vaccination decision and telehealth can play an important role in addressing these concerns.
There is currently very little information from clinical trials on COVID-19 vaccinations in pregnant women. However, early research has not reported an increase in adverse events following the COVID-19 vaccination compared to non-pregnant women, with no adverse pregnancy outcomes.
Telehealth is critical for helping to address some of these concerns surrounding pregnancy and vaccination. Video telehealth provides an easy, convenient and safe way for doctors to communicate with patients and have conversations regarding pathways for women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or planning pregnancy.
Supporting high-risk patients
Patients with impaired immune systems also require closer support and guidance regarding vaccinations. Many immunocompromising conditions can cause a higher risk of severe illness and complications from COVID-19, including solid organ transplantation, blood and solid organ cancers, immunotherapy, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, stem cell transplant and CAR-T cell therapy. Vaccination protects high-risk patients from contracting severe illness as a result of COVID-19.
With this in mind, it is critical for doctors and allied health practitioners to have conversations with immunocompromised patients about the best approach to vaccination, including suitability for either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine. Video telehealth can support this process, allowing doctors to explore options and explain to patients how the vaccine works to help minimise concerns in high-risk patients.
Once a patient is vaccinated, doctors must offer follow-ups, particularly for those patients who experience side effects or symptoms. As an example, some patients develop common symptoms that may be similar to a cold or flu such as fatigue, headaches and body chills.
Doctors can use video telehealth to consult with patients and effectively streamline the patient follow-up process. As such, video telehealth can be used to manage patients post-vaccination by enabling doctors to quickly evaluate patients and determine whether their symptoms compel further follow-up or serious medical action.
Likewise, patients can report suspected side effects to their doctor or other healthcare professional. The doctor or allied health professional can then make a formal report on behalf of the patient to the respective state or territory health department or the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve become accustomed to virtual visits with our GPs through telehealth. Although getting vaccinated still requires a patient’s physical presence, video telehealth can play an important role in supporting Australia’s vaccine rollout efforts and managing patient concerns pre-vaccination and follow-ups post-vaccination. Ultimately, leaning on telehealth during the vaccine rollout has the potential to improve overall health outcomes for more patients.
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