Sometimes it’s hard to find a cloud’s silver lining. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the darkest cloud in our sky in the past 18 months. But the rapid improvement in access and funding for telehealth services is a silver lining. Regional and rural Australians have been calling for access to telehealth services for a long time. Now telehealth is being celebrated for another reason — to improve the sustainability and climate-resilience of our health system.
Improved access during climate events
Regional communities benefit most from telehealth services through improved access. Patients often need to travel far, sometimes hundreds of kilometres, to access health services like specialists and medical scans, as well as required follow-up appointments and more.
These same communities are also exposed more often to extreme weather events. In our warmer world, heatwaves, bushfires and floods are more frequent and intense. Dr June Brundell, former registrar from Stanthorpe in Queensland, shared an experience from the 2019–20 bushfire season. Her hospital was filled with smoke, with air quality so poor that Dr Brundell ‘couldn't see to the end of the corridor’. In this instance, telehealth meant vulnerable patients could receive care without being exposed to smoke. ‘The ability to deliver telehealth from general practice is a big deal when you live rurally,’ said Dr Brundell. ‘It’s a way of being able to deliver safe care in a changing climate’.
Fewer greenhouse gas emissions
Telehealth not only improves healthcare access. By reducing the distance that regional Australians travel to receive care, it lowers travel costs and the emissions produced.
The research is limited, but one study by Peng & Hansen (2018) suggests that telehealth reduces our carbon footprint by up to 70 per cent compared to in-person visits.
Telehealth is an answer to two modern-day challenges: limited access to health care in regional communities and urgent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Telehealth services are more easily billable now, under the temporary Medicare Benefits Schedule items made available during the COVID-19 pandemic. This arrangement is in place until 31 December 2021. The Australian Government Department of Health should consider the effect on regional and rural Australians of scaling back these services.
Telehealth is good for our health, good for our climate and good for our bank accounts. That’s what we call a win-win-win.