GPs will be able to bulk bill phone or video consultations with all patients from next week in a bid to help contain the rapid spread of coronavirus, AAP has reported.
The Federal Government has expanded the eligibility criteria to include all GPs, specialists, and mental health and allied health professionals.
‘This has been one of the most significant changes we’ve seen in Australian general practice in my working lifetime of 35 years,’ Professor Michael Kidd, Principal Medical Adviser to the Department of Health, said.
The reform follows continued advocacy from the RACGP, and other medical and patient groups, who have been working tirelessly with the Federal Government to co-design the response to the pandemic.
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As it stood, the eligibility criteria for bulk-billed telehealth only included suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus), and particularly vulnerable cohorts. Anyone between the ages of one and 70 (or one and 50 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people) had been excluded.
‘The RACGP has said from the start, we need telephone and videoconferencing item numbers for all patients. We need them to continue providing quality care so we can protect patients, GPs, and their teams,’ RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon told newsGP. ‘We have been working closely with Minister Hunt and the Department of Health to achieve this.
‘We thank the minister and the department for listening to our concerns, and addressing them. There is still work to be done, but we think we can get there within the week.’
Telehealth expansion has been seen elsewhere in the world as confirmed cases soar, with GPs in the UK advised to consult patients remotely where possible. Similarly, in the US President Donald Trump has rolled out telehealth accessibility for all Medicare recipients.
Locally, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt praised the opening up of telehealth to all Australians as ‘an extremely important development’.
‘Very important to stress, however, that a very large proportion of GP services of course require face-to-face treatment,’ he said.
Meanwhile, Private Healthcare Australia chief executive Rachel David said private health funds are working to expand consultations for mental health services. Dr David also called on health funds to give relief to members experiencing financial difficulty as a result of the pandemic.
General practices have been feeling mounting pressure. Rapidly changing medical advice has meant staff members are constantly inundated with requests for information, while personal protection equipment (PPE) shortages have been worsening.
The Federal Government has said it will continue to work with the RACGP and other peak bodies, with the next stages of the response expected to be confirmed by the end of this week.