Long-sought after changes allowing rebates for telehealth consultations are enabling general practitioners to deliver continued and quality care to aged care residents.
Aged care residents can now access Medicare bulk-billed telehealth services as part of several measures announced by the Federal Government last month in response to the coronavirus pandemic (read more here and here).
It allows doctors, nurses, mental and allied health professionals to receive a rebate under the Medicare Benefits Schedule for services delivered over the telephone or video call or conferencing technology.
Dr Sachin Patel, the founder and director of Melbourne general practice Aged Care GP, said he was excited for older Australians that they could provide so much better care for them now.
“We think its excellent because it allows the regular GP to provide better continuity of care because you can provide care even when you’re not physically at the facility,” Dr Patel told Australian Ageing Agenda.
“It’s excellent and it’s something that we have been pushing for for a long time,” Dr Patel said.
Telehealth is already improving how the practice’s 24 general practitioners are delivering care to the 70 aged care facilities and 2,000 patients on their books.
Last weekend four doctors from the practice prevented 30 locum visits and 10 unnecessary hospital admissions by using telehealth, Dr Patel said.
Many aged care providers are prepared to use technology to facilitate resident consultations with doctors but there are limitations around devices including concerns over rules about using personal phones, he said.
“In this environment, practicality has to rule and we have to go with simplicity. I don’t think most people actually care if it’s the staff mobile or anyone’s mobile or device.
“We all pretty much have high quality cameras in our pockets, so we should all be using it for the best outcome for the residents,” Dr Patel said.
Practice using latest technology
Aged Care GP is using cloud-based telehealth platform TeleConsult, which enables GPs to provide remote care with features including high definition video conferencing, real-time monitoring, chat messaging, screen and file sharing and calendar integration.
Residents benefit by being able to see their regular GP and have familiy members join the consultation while staff benefit by being able to easily call for assistance and receive faster support, Dr Patel said.
“Nursing staff might be worried that they need to send someone to hospital, so [it is helpful] for them to have the back-up of the regular GP who can help them with the patient and make a decision where it might not be appropriate to go to hospital,” Dr Patel said.
Aged care facility staff can also have their questions answered by GPs within an hour or two, as opposed to waiting hours or even another day, he said.
TeleConsult, which is device agnostic and integratable with existing platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet and is compatible with all devices, has been developed by Melbourne virtual health service provider CollabCare.
It was previously available to hospitals but was launched for other health practices in response to coronavirus and the changes to telehealth Medicare rebates, said CollabCare CEO Joseph Antony.
“Concerns around social distancing and the transmission of the COVID-19 virus have made the need for GPs and other healthcare workers to access a specialist online health system more important than ever,” Mr Antony said.
“This is particularly critical for GPs consulting in aged care facilities, where patients are at increased risk from the COVID-19 virus,” he said.
TeleConsult has been developed for clinicians and includes high-level security and industry best practice data handling.
“Importantly, all service operations and data stay strictly within Australia,” Mr Antony said.
Dr Patel said he hoped telehealth would continue to be covered by Medicare after the coronavirus pandemic.
“It will actually perversely reduce the costs of care significantly,” Dr Patel said.
“The alternative [last weekend] would have been 10 hospital admissions plus 30 locum visits.
“The cost of that is astronomical compared to 30 GP telehealth visits. I think this will be here to stay now.”
Provider trialling telehealth app
Aged care residents at a Sydney aged care facility are also reaping the benefits of telehealth services.
IRT Group began trialling a customised telehealth app last week that was developed in conjunction with software developer Checked In Care.
IRT Connect is being piloted at IRT Thomas Holt Kirrawee in southern Sydney ahead of a planned roll out to its 21 aged care centres in NSW, the ACT and south-east Queensland.
IRT Group CEO Patrick Reid said the app was part of measures to support the health and wellbeing of residents during strict social distancing rules in place to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“In the past month our aged care residents, who are among the most at risk of COVID-19, have seen massive changes to their day-to-day lives,” Mr Reid said.
“Right now, we are prioritising getting the telehealth function of the app up and running for all of our aged care centres across the country to ensure residents can connect with their doctor remotely as appropriate for their healthcare needs,” he said.
“Once this function is running smoothly, we also intend to build in a video calling function so we can help residents have meaningful catch-ups with their family members,” he said.
The IRT Connect app is compatible both Android and iOS devices.