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Telehealth takes off

by Aleks Vickovich •
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The Federal Government has got the ball rolling on the telehealth program that formed a key component of Labor’s election platform, with the Department of Health and Ageing (DHA) releasing a Discussion Paper ahead of the E-Health Conference taking place in Melbourne on November 30.  

According to a statement released by the Minister for Health and Ageing, Nicola Roxon, on 28 October, “the nation’s leading health experts, consumer groups and information technology specialists will come together to discuss the technological revolution in the delivery of health care at the E-Health Conference”.

Minister Roxon said the conference will contribute to her department’s dialogue with the medical and ICT industries and the community. 

“I want to get the stakeholders together so that we can get maximum value out of the Government’s investment and ensure that there is detailed discussion about the implementation plans leading into broader community consultation,” she said.

The Government is investing is more than $470 million into e-health and a range of initiatives are soon to be rolled out across the health sector.  One of the key projects within the broad scope of e-health (though not included in that funding allocation) is the $352 million Connecting Health Services with the Futuretelehealth policy, which will see the Government provide rebates for online medical consultations for patients in rural and remote locations from July 2011. 

“Telehealth will cut down the tyranny of distance and bring specialist services to the patient’s doorstep through the use of online videolink technology.

“That will cut down patients’ travel time and is part of the Government’s investment in delivering specialist services closer to home,” Ms Roxon said in a statement issued on November 30.

This initiative has been flagged as one of the Government’s top priorities and was an important factor in securing the crucial support of the rural Independent MPs needed to form Government in September. 

The discussion paper released today is an important step by DHA in this consultation process.  The Department is inviting feedback on the most effective forms of service delivery for the policy. 

The discussion paper centres on a number of key talking points.  The first it examines is optimal practice models and the related issue of optimal specialities, seeking input on which practice models are “best suited to the online format” and which medical services are most desirable and necessary via that format.

Secondly the discussion paper raises questions surrounding the take-up rate of telehealth services by medical professionals.  DHA expressed concern that “despite the strength of the case for telehealth, its adoption in Australia has to date been limited”.

“While there are some outstanding examples of the application of this technology, many areas in need of these kinds of services continue to go without,” the discussion paper explains.

The document goes on to suggest that there is a substantial financial and technological disincentive for General Practitioners (GPs) to adopt telehealth practices.   In relation to the technological hindrance, the discussion paper acknowledges that there is, “a lack of adequate infrastructure to support videoconferencing and the high-speed transmission of data and images,” but suggests this obstacle will be diminished with the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN).

The document also acknowledges that, “the widespread adoption of telehealth by doctors has also been inhibited by the absence of remuneration mechanisms which recognise and address the particular costs and administrative issues associated with conducting telehealth consultations”.  The Government seeks to remedy this problem through offering Medicare rebates as well as making financial incentives available “to augment this Medicare revenue”.

The discussion paper seeks advice from medical professionals as to what form of payment would be most conducive to the adoption and retention of telehealth practices.  Options such as a one-off payments, central hosting services and ongoing funding are listed. 

Indication of the extent to which training and support is required, and what form this would take, is also sought by the Department in the responding submissions.

The Medicare rebates and incentives policy will further the work already conducted by DHA in regard to telehealth in the past financial year.  According to the DHA 2009-10 Annual Report, the department supported services which ”enabled rural and remote patients to access local medical specialist services and distance services using telehealth in more than 100 specialty and sub-speciality disciplines such as psychiatry, surgery and paediatrics”.

Submissions close on 27 January 2011. 

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