By Stephen Easton
Minister for Health and Ageing, Nicola Roxon, yesterday announced details of the $620 million in Medicare rebates and other incentives available from July 1 for telehealth videoconferencing with patients in rural, regional and outer metropolitan areas, to provide more equitable access to specialists like gerontologists.
These incentives include a $6000 bonus payment for health practitioners when they use the new technology to provide a consultation for the first time, and $20 every time a telehealth service is bulk-billed in the first year.
New Medicare items will be created for existing consultation services provided using a video phone and additional rebates will be paid on top of these items, “to recognise the increased complexity of providing a service to a remote patient”.
Services delivered by specialists like gerontologists will attract a 50% additional rebate and a 35% additional rebate will be provided to the “practitioner at the patient end”.
Ms Roxon said the generous rebates were necessary to encourage health professionals to use telehealth in their day to day practice, because telehealth was “critical to delivering quality healthcare to all Australians”.
“We recognise the time, complexity and administration involved in telehealth services so rebates will now also be available for the health professional located with the patient including GPs, nurse practitioners, midwives, practice nurses and Aboriginal health workers,” she said.
The government’s ‘telehealth rollout’ has the support of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RACGP), which has been asked by the Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA) to develop standards for the conduct of video consultations.
The RACGP is already the established peak body for general practice standards, and plans to have the new telehealth standards available in October this year.
The college has also, independently of DoHA, begun planning the development of an online training and education module to help doctors update their professional skills, which will be available from next year.
RACGP president, Professor Claire Jackson, said that given the rebates would be available from 1 July, there was an urgent need for the establishment and implementation of nation-wide telehealth standards.
“The telehealth standards on video consultations for general practitioners will be developed to ensure the identification of potential risks and risk mitigation strategies, including protocols for establishing patient identification, protecting patient privacy, and determining the level of clinical appropriateness of video consulting,” she said.
“Although timelines are extremely tight, the RACGP is in an ideal position to assist the government in developing the telehealth standards on video consultations for general practitioners.”
According to a statement, the RACGP will continue to advocate for further implementation of telehealth, which could also help community care providers and their clients, albeit in a different form of the technology.
There are still currently no Medicare rebates to support the use of telehealth equipment in people’s homes to monitor vital signs, a system which has demonstrated cost savings and positive benefits for home-based aged care clients in trials performed by several providers, including Silver Chain, Baptist Community Services and Feros Care.
In these home-based telehealth systems, a nurse checks the vital signs data remotely on a secure website and reports any unusual readings to the client’s GP.
According to the Australian Medical Association, without a specific Medicare item number for this service, it is difficult for many GPs to be involved unless their patient pays the entire bill from their own pocket.