Doctors and health groups have applauded the Morrison government’s decision to provide additional funding to assist the temporary widening of telehealth consultations at a time of high Omicron infections.
The $24 million will also cover the continued supply of personal protective equipment, such as masks, respirators, face shields and gowns for face-to-face consultations including patients who have tested positive through a rapid antigen test.
The latter aligns with national cabinet’s January 5 decision that RATs no longer need to be confirmed by a PCR lab test.
Health Minister Greg Hunt says telehealth has been vital during the pandemic, providing greater flexibility in healthcare delivery at the most critical time, and continues to be a fundamental part of the response.
The government will introduce temporary specialist inpatient telehealth – via video and phone – including initial and complex specialist telephone consultation items and longer telephone consultations for GPs until June 30.
“These services will be made available nationally rather than targeted to commonwealth-declared hotspots as they were previously, recognising the high infection rate and need to provide healthcare support across the community,” Mr Hunt said in a joint statement with Regional Health Minister David Gillespie.
Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid welcomed the telehealth decision and putting other key elements into effect, as sought by the AMA and other GP groups in a meeting with Mr Hunt last week.
“The surge in Omicron infection is seeing patients reaching out to general practice like never before,” Dr Khorshid said in a statement.
“Many practices are struggling to answer all the phone calls they are receiving and provide the care that is required of their patients.”
The Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA) and Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM) said the measures will greatly assist rural GPs and specialists to care for patients while reducing the spread of Omicron.
“Omicron’s impact has also extended significantly to rural and remote areas, impacting on the ability of rural health services to operate at full capacity,” RDAA president Megan Belot said.
Boon for cancer patients
ACRRM president Sarah Chalmers said the six-month extension should see the nation through the current Omicron wave and provide time for doctors and practices to review their telehealth models.
Private Cancer Physicians of Australia president Christopher Steer declared the announcement an immense relief for Australia’s cancer patients, their families and their specialists.
“At a time of surging pandemic, we need our immunocompromised vulnerable Australians to stay at home and not be forced to travel into public areas where COVID-19 may be rampant,” associate professor Steer said.
But Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Karen Price, while welcoming the move, said it must not stop there.
“This must be a permanent fixture of telehealth for years to come and the RACGP will continue fighting to make that happen,” Dr Price said.
“Otherwise, we risk undoing a lot of hard work that has improved care for patients including those in rural and remote areas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients and patients with chronic disease.”