Don’t hang up on telehealth

  • Woman with mask using computer
Claire Hewat
Allied Health Professions Australia
Claire Hewat

Australia is now in an enviable position regarding COVID-19. While we’re likely to continue to see ‘hotspots’ and local responses to clusters, we are now largely looking forwards – towards the rollout of vaccines and the possible return to ‘normal’ life after COVID.

The number of coronavirus cases has been relatively low here, but for many people who have had the virus, the effects will linger. For people with ‘long COVID’ the infection may last for months and the ongoing effects much longer. These ‘long haulers’ will need a range of rehabilitation services to support their recovery.

Allied health professionals will play a large part in this rehab, bringing clinical expertise for conditions that can’t be ‘fixed’ with medicine or surgery. The allied health sector will need to be properly supported to do this, while also addressing the surge in rehab and recovery of patients whose healthcare was put on hold during the pandemic. Improving access to allied health will take approaches that embrace new technologies to remove barriers and support multidisciplinary care. Telehealth is a good example of this.

The potential for telehealth has been steadily growing with new technologies. We manage everything else through internet-connected devices these days, why not our healthcare? There have previously been some government-funded programs in rural and remote health and in aged care, but up to now the hurdles seem to have outweighed the potential benefits. 

It’s no secret that the biggest healthcare barrier for people living in Australia’s rural and remote areas is being able to access services. This was true long before coronavirus came along. Telehealth has opened access to healthcare for some of our most vulnerable patient groups, including people in rural and remote areas.

The pandemic has pushed telehealth to the forefront – suddenly the right solution for the times. Telehealth made it possible for people to consult healthcare professionals by phone or video from their own home – maintaining social distancing while providing continuity of care. It was a big shift in policy and practice, but health professionals and consumers have adapted quickly to this new way of working.

The expansion of telehealth has largely been viewed as an interim measure – a stop-gap solution while people couldn’t have face-to-face care – and the current funding is temporary. But limiting Telehealth to a ‘pandemic’ measure fails to recognise its potential in ongoing patient care and multidisciplinary collaboration.

Telehealth doesn’t replace hands-on treatment and it can’t address all healthcare problems, but it has been shown to be a safe and effective way to provide a range of services. These include patient education, diagnostic assessment, counselling, evaluating the progress of interventions, guiding or supervising self-care strategies and exercise programs. Medicare data shows that allied health professionals made the most of videoconferencing options to provide a range of care. At the height of the pandemic, 10 per cent of all allied health consultations (and more than half the allied health telehealth consultations) were conducted via videoconference (compared to one per cent by GPs).

However, it should not be viewed as a ‘cheap’ alternative. The suggestion that ongoing payment for videoconferencing will be less than for face-to-face consults fails to address the extra effort often required to do this safely and effectively.

Making funding for telehealth allied health services permanent would provide an additional care option to support face-to-face care and increase access and convenience for rural and remote patients. It would also embed the government’s “whole of population” solution as a contemporary approach to care in key priority areas such as primary care, rural and remote health, chronic disease management and mental health.

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