GP telehealth consultations via telephone went up during the peak periods of the COVID-19 pandemic in aged care homes in Victoria and New South Wales but video consults remained steady and low throughout the year, a Macquarie University study has found.
The study funded by the Digital Health Cooperative Research Centre identified consultations with 22,797 aged care residents across three Victorian and two NSW Primary Health Networks between March 2019 and December 2020.
It investigated patterns of general practitioner (GP) consultations in aged care facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the uptake of temporary Medicare items for telehealth, which include videoconferencing and audio-only telephone consultations.
Lead researcher Dr Zhaoli Dai said GP telehealth consultations were highest in April and August in both states, which coincides with the first and second waves of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We found that in Victoria particularly, telehealth, especially telephone consultations increased, and that was particularly found in August where there was about a 30 per cent uptake,” said Dr Dai told Australian Ageing Agenda.
In Victoria in August, 26 per cent of consultations took place over the telephone and 4 per cent via video conference, the report shows.
In NSW, telehealth was most prevalent in April when 13 per cent of consultations occurred via telephone and 1 per cent through video conference.
The overall uptake of videoconferencing consultations remained steady and low throughout the period, the study shows.
This outcome deserves further investigation because video consultations offer benefits when addressing conditions such as skin problems, musculoskeletal disorders and trauma, the researchers said in the paper.
The low uptake of video consultations may be because facilities do not have the required technology to deliver thee service, said Dr Dai, a research fellow at the Macquarie University’s Centre for Health Systems and Safety Research.
She recommends aged care providers look at updating infrastructure to ensure they are suitable for telehealth, including ensuring a stable internet connection.
“There are also issues about how comfortable the patients and the health professionals are in terms of data security and privacy and regulation needs to be imposed so that… both of the parties are comfortable in terms of using this kind of mode of service,” she said.
The aged care royal commissioners in their final report also recommend that all aged care providers have the infrastructure to accommodate telehealth consultations.
Elsewhere the study found that face-to-face visits in Victorian facilities declined between March and December 2020 compared to the previous year whereas face-to-face consultations increased in NSW across the same periods.
The discrepancy is likely due to the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and additional lockdowns in Victoria compared to NSW, the report said.
Call to continue telehealth
Dr Dai said the study shows that telehealth is a beneficial service for aged care that should continue.
“We are seeing that during both waves of COVID-19, telehealth has played a very important role in supporting that delivery with GP services, and this is seen in both states, particularly in Victoria because we know that the severity of the COVID-19 lockdown was higher in Victoria,” she said.
“Our research shows the extended access to the [Medicare] funded telehealth services to aged care residents should be continued by the government,” she said.
The study is published in the Macquarie University Australian Institute of Health and Innovation’s COVID-19 general practice snapshot.