27 September 2023

The doctor’s call: How telehealth is catching up with the pandemic

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Kate McDonald* says it has taken the global pandemic to finally get telehealth on the front foot in Australia.

It has become a cliché in a hurry in these unprecedented times but the speed with which the health IT sector has had to adapt to the global pandemic has been stunning to watch.

Healthcare usually changes at a snail’s pace, for good reason, and health IT is no different.

And just as dealing with a crisis playbook has been thrown out the window, so have years of recalcitrance on the part of the healthcare system and its policy designers in taking up new and not so new technologies.

It took a global pandemic to finally get telehealth on the front foot and everyone is doing it now.

It has been quite stunning to see how fast the local industry has been in developing solutions for users, with a plethora of video conferencing solutions now available.

That said, we are hearing a lot of anecdotal evidence that most telehealth being done in general practice is over the phone, and that once the pandemic is over, quite a few GPs will revert to pre-pandemic days, for financial if no other reason.

We’ll be most interested to find out how many consults have been billed using the telehealth (video) items as opposed to telephone, as we are hearing that upwards of 65 per cent and even as high as 80 per cent of consults are audio only.

The Department of Health won’t be pleased about this as it has specified that video be used if at all possible, but then again the Department has long been concerned that doctors would rort the system if they were allowed to practice telehealth.

We think those fears are mainly unfounded, barring the odd opportunist, so it’s a shame telehealth has been held back.

And just as all of the fears surrounding telehealth seem to have been swamped by the pandemic, so has the stricture against using what has always been a no-no in healthcare: email as a means of communicating health data.

Not only are GPs emailing and faxing images of prescriptions to pharmacies, but even referral letters no longer have to be printed out and handed to the patient.

These, too, can be emailed or faxed directly to the local radiology practice complete with name, date of birth and clinical details.

All of those security fears have also been chucked out the window, and you wonder if they were overblown in the first place.

It will be fascinating to see just what remains when the pandemic is over, but as old and new technologies come to the forefront, we have to ask the question: why has it taken so long?

Is it a case of technology being stymied by reluctance to change workflows or by red tape or a combination of both?

Should so much effort have been put into the My Health Record when getting secure messaging, electronic prescribing and telehealth in general use might have made more sense?

Even the acute care sector has joined the party: last week saw the rollout of remote monitoring at Bendigo Health using technology from Siemens Healthineers.

Western Sydney is also doing this, using a locally developed system, and so is West Moreton Hospital and Health Service in Queensland, using Philips gear.

This sort of technology is not new and not even that sophisticated, but its use is still in its infancy.

However, as a presentation at Australian Institute of Digital Health’s From the Frontlines Conference showed last month, even massive health systems like Metro North HHS can move in a hurry if they want to.

Perhaps the pandemic is showing that when it comes to technology take-up and innovation, governments should just get out of the way.

This Government has shown it can be remarkably flexible when the crunch came and able to move fast when put on the spot.

We hope that may it continue.

* Kate McDonald is a journalist with Pulse+IT. She tweets at @KateMcDawdle.

This article first appeared at www.pulseitmagazine.com.au.

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