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How does telehealth work in Australia?

Telehealth services have been extended to all Australians during COVID-19

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Doctors discussing

At its core, telehealth is simply a way to deliver medical services and share important information remotely. While telehealth has existed in Australia for some time, it's entirely possible that you hadn't heard about it until the government announced a new telehealth program as part of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

If you're looking to access these new services, jump to this section. To learn more about telehealth and how it's used in Australia, both during the outbreak and after it, this guide runs you through everything you need to know.

What is telehealth?

Telehealth is a way of delivering health services remotely, either through telephone, video conferencing or other communication technologies. It is not owned by a single entity, rather it is the way health services are brought to clients who are unable to be in physical contact with a health service provider.

From Monday 30 March, all Australians will have access to telehealth services.

Outside of consultations, communications technology has been implemented in many health fields to allow for:

  • Monitoring. Remote monitoring devices, such as a heart monitor for a cardiac patient.
  • Prescriptions. Official prescriptions for patients who may not be able to see a local doctor.
  • Information sharing. Vital information and other important medical details can be shared securely over the internet to improve patient outcomes.
  • Diagnosis. For example, an ophthalmologist could diagnose an eye condition via a videocall.

The use of telemedicine has been on the rise in Australia for quite some years now, although it's more firmly established in the US.

How has telehealth been expanded with the coronavirus pandemic?

The federal government has unveiled a $2.4 billion plan to combat COVID-19's spread here in Australia. $100 million of this has been put towards establishing a new Medicare telehealth consultation service. At present, this is a temporary six-month measure.

Currently, this bulk-billed service is available to anyone who is in home quarantine as a result of current national coronavirus isolation criteria. It's also available to people who have been identified as being at high risk from the virus even if currently healthy, including:

  • People over 70.
  • Indigenous people over 50.
  • People with chronic conditions or immunocompromised systems.
  • Parents with new babies.
  • Pregnant people.

There is no restriction on what platform can be used for the consultation, with phone, FaceTime, and Skype being listed as examples. You can contact any health professional if you are in quarantine or isolation for COVID-19, but otherwise if only vulnerable must contact someone you've seen face-to-face in the past 12 months to be eligible for bulk billing.

Allied mental health services are also included on the Medicare schedule for telehealth, to provide further support. Health funds will cover Australians' access to teleconsultations for psychology services during the COVID-19 outbreak from Monday 30 March.

The Australian Government also announced that they will be allocating $25 million to fund home deliveries of medication. From Monday, 30 March, Australia Post will launch its Pharmacy Home Delivery Service which will support those who are vulnerable or self-isolating to get access to their essential medications.

How can I access telehealth services?

If you are currently in isolation as a result of national COVID-19 quarantine guidelines, you can videocall any eligible doctor, nurse or mental health professional and be covered by Medicare. If you are in a vulnerable group listed above with no current symptoms, you may only call a professional you've seen face-to-face in the past 12 months to be eligible for bulk billing. Click here for exact criteria.

Below is a list of some telehealth services, how they work, where they're available and their contact information.

Healthdirect

  • Available. Across Australia.
  • How it works. The helpline offers you the option of having a phone or video call with a GP during after hours. Eligible patients are referred to a video call by a registered nurse. You can use your smartphone, tablet or desktop computer to speak to them.
  • Contact info. Free calls on 1800 022 222.

HealthNow

  • Available. Across Australia.
  • How it works. Call and book an appointment. A telehealth coordinator will arrange your consultation. You'll then receive a call back from a doctor, psychologist or specialist at an appointment time of your choice.
  • Contact info. 1800 870 711 (within Australia) or +61 2 9308 9400 (International).

13 HEALTH

  • Available. Queensland
  • How it works. 13 HEALTH is a confidential phone service that provides health advice to people in Queensland. It's available 24/7 days a week for the cost of a local call.
  • Contact info. 13 43 25 84

Western NSW Local Health District

  • Available. Western NSW
  • How it works. You will receive a letter or email confirming the appointment time once you've been in touch with your doctor. Connect from your device. On the appointment day, start your consultation 5 to 10 minutes before the appointment time via the Join Call button.
  • Contact info. Visit the Western NSW Local Health District page to get connected or call (02) 6809 6829​.

Hunter New England Local Health District

  • Available. The Hunter, New England and Lower Mid North Coast regions
  • How it works. Telehealth allows you to receive a clinical consultation by videoconference over the internet. HNE Health uses Scopia software to conduct telehealth consultations. The software runs on a number of different devices including Windows and Mac computers, Apple iPads or iPhones and Android tablets or smartphones.
  • Contact info. Visit the Hunter New England Local Health District page to get connected or contact HNELHD-ClinicalTelehealth@hnehealth.nsw.gov.au.

South Australia Health

  • Available. Across areas of South Australia
  • How it works. For eligible patients, specialist telehealth consultations can be bulk-billed to Medicare. Telehealth is available in South Australia for a range of healthcare services, including mental health, rehab, palliative care and afterhour GP support for emergency departments.
  • Contact info. Visit the Preparing for your telehealth appointment page to get connected or contact HealthSADigitalTelehealthNetwork@sa.gov.au

Healthy Western Australia

  • Available. Western Australia
  • How it works. Connects you with your medical specialist, allied health professional or nurse via videoconferencing. If you're a public patient, you should discuss with your health service provider whether your appointment can be conducted by telehealth. If you're a private patient, speak with your GP or private provider.
  • Contact info. Contact your local health service provider. For technical assistance or general telehealth enquiries call 1300 367 166.

Northern Territory Health

  • Available. Northern Territory
  • How it works. Speak to a medical specialist, allied health professional or nurse via your smartphone, laptop or tablet.
  • Contact info. TeleHealthHeldpesk.THS@nt.gov.au or phone 1300 762 254

North Western Melbourne PHN

  • Available. In a number of public specialist clinics in Victoria
  • How it works. North Western Melbourne PHN is a government initiative that supports telehealth (video) access to a number of public specialist clinics including Latrobe Regional Hospital and the Royal Children's Hospital.
  • Contact info. Email telehealth@dhhs.vic.gov.au if you want to find out if the service you need is set up for telehealth or check out here.

You can also use the map locator on the Australian Government's Doctor Connect website (http://www.doctorconnect.gov.au/) to see if Telehealth is available in your area.

Outside of COVID-19, regular telehealth services can still be accessed via other means:

  • Networked programs. Remote health clinics are linked to larger facilities such as hospitals via high-speed internet connections.
  • Monitoring centre links. Patients are monitored remotely at home via the internet, SMS or phone connections.
  • Store-and-forward platforms. Internet portals where healthcare providers can forward, store and share patient data securely.
  • Health tracking tools. Wearables, apps and other mobile medical devices for tracking and reporting personal medical data.
  • Real-time video links. Allow health professionals to interact with remote patients and make diagnoses based on visual information.

How can I access telehealth services?

If you are currently in isolation as a result of national COVID-19 quarantine guidelines, you can videocall any eligible doctor, nurse or mental health professional and be covered by Medicare. If you are in a vulnerable group listed above with no current symptoms, you may only call a professional you've seen face-to-face in the past 12 months to be eligible for bulk billing. Click here for exact criteria.

Outside of COVID-19, regular telehealth services can still be accessed via other means:

  • Networked programs. Remote health clinics are linked to larger facilities such as hospitals via high-speed internet connections.
  • Monitoring centre links. Patients are monitored remotely at home via the internet, SMS or phone connections.
  • Store-and-forward platforms. Internet portals where healthcare providers can forward, store and share patient data securely.
  • Health tracking tools. Wearables, apps and other mobile medical devices for tracking and reporting personal medical data.
  • Real-time video links. Allow health professionals to interact with remote patients and make diagnoses based on visual information.

Does private health insurance cover telehealth?

Some health insurers also offer telehealth services to their members, including:

  • Bupa. Bupa offers telephonic health support for members with chronic conditions such as heart failure, heart disease, diabetes, back pain and lung conditions.
  • Medibank Health Solutions. Medibank Health Solutions provides telephone and web-based health care services including telephone triage, health advice and referral, health coaching, mental health programs, chronic disease management and health call centre software.
  • HCF. HCF has taken a 15% stake in telehealth start-up GP2U, which provides a remote medical consultation and prescription service in conjunction with Priceline and Terry White Chemists.

What specialists use telehealth?

  • Telemedicine. Live video conferencing and information sharing between healthcare professionals and patients in remote locations.
  • Teleradiology. Teleradiology allows GPs to send X-rays securely to a radiologist at another location to speed up diagnosis of a patient's condition.
  • Telepsychiatry. Telepsychiatry lets psychiatrists treat patients remotely, helping to increase public access to behavioural health services.
  • Teledermatology. Teledermatology allows GPs to send pictures of patients' skin conditions for remote examination by a skin specialist.
  • Teleophthalmology. With teleophthalmology, ophthalmologists can remotely examine a patient's eyes to diagnose eye problems.
  • Telenephrology. Telenephrology allows a general medical practitioner to consult a nephrologist remotely about a patient with a kidney problem.
  • Teleobstetrics. Teleobstetrics enables an obstetrician to be able to provide remote prenatal care.
  • Teleoncology. With the aid of teleoncology, oncologists can provide more accessible and convenient care to patients with cancer.
  • Telepathology. This technology allows pathologists to share high-resolution images and videos for diagnosis, research and education
  • Telerehabilitation. Allows medical professionals to provide rehab services remotely (i.e. physical therapy).

What does the future hold for telehealth?

We can already see with the expansion of telehealth in response to the coronavirus outbreak, telehealth is sure to become easier and much more widely accepted in the future. We already have Google Glass and the Apple Watch that can monitor our health data and transmit it to health professionals.

Pioneering new work is being carried out in areas such as robotic surgery, facial recognition and automatic data transcription, so there's no reason why telehealth tools won't be an integral part of our future healthcare systems worldwide. Indeed, telehealth is predicted to become a $40 billion industry in just the next few years, so the future looks bright for healthcare professionals and patients alike.

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Picture: GettyImages

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