The Victorian government is distributing AU$5 million across 15 telehealth projects to better connect patients in regional and rural areas to medical specialists across the state, Minister for Health Jill Hennessy announced on Tuesday.
The projects will allow Alfred Health to provide online video consultations to burns, infectious disease, lung transplant, and HIV patients in regional and rural Victoria. Austin Health’s Victorian Respiratory Support Service and the Victorian Spinal Cord Service will also be able to use videoconferencing as one of the modalities of delivering its services.
The Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre will expand specialist oncology outreach services to regional Victoria through the establishment of the Victorian Cancer Comprehensive Cancer Centre Telehealth Network, while Monash Health will expand access to paediatric specialists in Gippsland.
A project from the Royal Women’s Hospital will expand access to its Menopausal Services after Cancer program to more women in rural and regional Victoria via telehealth, while Rural Northwest Health will work with the Flying Doctor Telehealth Specialist Service to improve access to endocrinology, oncology, cardiology, chronic disease, and rheumatology services in North West Victoria.
“These projects mean rural patients can quickly access the best medical advice to better manage their health, without spending a fortune on travel and accommodation,” Hennessy said in a statement.
While most state governments view telehealth as beneficial for the healthcare industry, the problem remains that Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) does not broadly cover telehealth-enabled models of care, NSW Health acknowledged in its Telehealth Framework and Implementation Strategy 2016-2021 [PDF].
Under MBS’ eligibility criteria, funding for services delivered via telehealth will only be provided to specialist doctors and for consultations with patients living outside metropolitan areas — the patient also needs to be at least 15 kilometres away from the closest practice.
General practitioners, allied health professionals, and nurses cannot bill Medicare for services delivered via telehealth, nor can clinicians consulting on a case via telehealth without the patient present.
There is also uncertainty around whether Activity Based Funding (ABF), which is provided to hospitals, covers services delivered via telehealth, the report states.
In January, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) said subpar internet connectivity and an absence of policies around equitable and affordable access to telecommunications are significant barriers for remote Australians seeking healthcare.
However, improvements in technology means distance should no longer be a barrier, the AMA said, especially given the range of inexpensive and free web-based video conferencing solutions available such as HCF-backed GP2U and Data61’s Coviu. Broadband and 4G internet is also widely available in metropolitan cities, with some parts having access to the National Broadband Network.