If you’re an Australian healthcare provider, there are important considerations you should be aware of before offering telehealth to patients.
In fact, the Department of Health has warned providers to ensure their video conferencing and telephony set-ups are fully compliant with relevant data and privacy laws before moving towards telehealth services.
If you’re not sure whether your practice is telehealth compliant, contact the team from GPsupport on 03 9999 1500 for a FREE 10-minute Telehealth Compliance Check today.
What is telehealth?
Telehealth can be described as the electronic collection or exchange of information between doctors, allied health practitioners, and their patients. The World Health Organisation uses the term ‘telehealth’ interchangeably with ‘telemedicine,’ as the purpose of both concepts is to deliver health services at a distance.
Services can vary, and may include direct telephone calls and video conferencing. Telehealth serves a range of practical purposes and is particularly relevant for aged care, individual clinician support, team-based support for complex conditions, and of course – disaster situations. The current COVID-19 pandemic is one such example.
It’s important to note that telehealth is only useful for patients that don’t require a physical examination to gain advice and assistance from their healthcare provider. Whilst telehealth has been available to rural and remote communities for many years, this service is expected to become the ‘new normal’ in Australian healthcare for the foreseeable future.
How is telehealth being used to combat COVID-19?
Effective from March 2020, the Australian Government made unprecedented changes to the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) that enabled bulk-billed telehealth services to become available for all eligible Medicare and concession cardholders. This decision was made in an effort to protect patients and healthcare workers from the growing COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, this breakthrough policy is being termed ‘whole-of-population’ telehealth, as the new provisions for telehealth extend far beyond previous eligibility criteria. This major policy change means that all Australians with an eligible Medicare, DVA or concession card have free access to the following telehealth services:
- General Practitioners,
- Mental health treatments,
- Chronic disease management,
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island health assessments,
- Pregnancy support counselling,
- Eating disorder support,
- Selected specialist appointments and more.
In terms of pandemic management, telehealth services provide a number of practical advantages such as:
- Reducing patient numbers in GP clinic waiting rooms, thereby decreasing unnecessary viral exposure,
- Alleviating some strain on public hospitals by reducing the number of patients who can be seen via telehealth,
- Decreasing the risk of viral exposure for GPs and other primary healthcare providers,
- Enabling GPs and other healthcare providers who are self-isolating or recovering from mild to moderate illness to continue consulting with patients at a distance,
- Making of existing technology (such as phones and video conferencing,) that can streamline solutions for Australian healthcare providers during this unprecedented period of demand.
These new provisions for telehealth come under a planned $1.1 billion boost in government funding, designed to combat the mental and physical health risks associated with COVID-19. The Department of Health has made bulk-billed telehealth services fully available until September 30th 2020, at which point the new provisions will be reviewed in light of the continued fight against COVID-19.
How can I get my practice set-up for telehealth?
MBS Item Numbers
New temporary MBS telehealth items enable Australian healthcare providers to continue delivering essential health care services to patients nationwide. According to the Department of Health, the bulk-billing incentive for Medicare fees has temporarily doubled (until September 30th) for items relating to General Practice, Diagnostic Imaging and Pathology services. Updated MBS Item Numbers can be found via the Department of Health website: Click here.
Whilst the Department of Health has stipulated that no specific equipment is required to provide Medicare compliant telehealth services, it has also warned that free versions of popular conferencing applications (i.e. non-commercial versions) may not meet applicable laws for security and privacy. The Department has urged practitioners to ensure that their chosen telehealth solution meets all clinical requirements, and satisfies the relevant data privacy laws.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, providers are able to offer audio-only telehealth services via telephone if video conferencing is not available. Phone-based telehealth services will make use of existing technology and can be more accessible for older patients, or those who are unfamiliar with the video format. For more information, click here.
How do I know if my telehealth set-up is compliant?
Criteria set by the RACGP states that practitioners have a legal obligation to ensure the privacy and security of health information they hold. The criteria also set out very specific requirements for data availability, integrity and access.
Practitioners who are moving towards telehealth services should contact GPsupport immediately, in order to confirm their current videoconferencing and telephony set-ups are compliant with all relevant data security laws. The GPsupport team is currently offering a FREE 10-minute Telehealth Compliance Check for all Australian healthcare providers.
The team from GPsupport maintains a comprehensive and up-to-date checklist to ensure your practice is always compliant, and can remain fully operational when Australians need quality healthcare most.
What else do I need to know?
It’s a time of rapid change and uncertainty for many Australian healthcare providers. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the Australian healthcare landscape, and specific provisions surrounding telehealth will be new territory for many providers. The good news is that the team from GPsupport is ready and available to answer your questions through our dedicated phone line, 03 9999 1500.
In addition, we can scale our technological products and services to reflect your business needs. All GPsupport services are adjustable on a month-by-month basis, and are designed to meet your changing business landscape. Our licensing structure ensures that you always have the latest technological tools at your disposal – along with dedicated, personalised support from the GPsupport team.