If there’s one positive from COVID-19 it’s telehealth – why throw it away?

  • Pregnant woman with laptop
By
Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
Professor Thierry Vancaillie,
Councillor
Issue
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Telehealth has been available for some time, but its introduction was patchy to say the least and dependent on the enthusiasm and conviction of some providers. This all changed with COVID-19 and its consequences of lockdown and restricted travelling.

Every area health organisation throughout the country was forced to invest in new equipment or update existing apparatus. Software improved dramatically, thus removing some of the frustration of using telehealth – there sure was frustration, as many of us will remember.

Most importantly, the Australian Government provided the resources to build a virtual network of health care and introduced specific MBS item numbers for general practitioners as well as specialists.

Women especially have been beneficiaries of these innovations: travelling when heavily pregnant isn’t particularly recommended; women are also more likely to require specialist health care for issues related to chronic pain and menopause.

Why throw this all away? The government has recently extended MBS support until June this year – but what will happen after that?

We have only a few months to convince the government that the right thing to do is to maintain telehealth item numbers. The bottom line is no doubt cost: continuing Medicare support comes with a price tag. Is that price tag justified? Is it more economical to force the pregnant woman to travel for her appointment or to send a pain medication prescription rather than properly assess and treat the patient with chronic pain?

The crux of the matter is therefore: can we demonstrate that the economic modelling of the government is wrong and that maintaining telehealth is beneficial to society as a whole?

Economic modelling for healthcare services is difficult as there are many variables which can skew the calculation. For rural and remote communities, in particular, modelling needs to consider the prolonged absence travelling requires, which triggers the need for child care or perhaps even the need to hire extra help on the farm.

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