The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in rapid changes to the way Australians access health care. We’re now using telehealth more than ever.

Last week’s federal budget confirmed a six-month extension of Medicare subsidies for telehealth consultations, worth A$2.4 billion. It also included A$18.6 million for the preparation of permanent telehealth infrastructure beyond March 31 next year.

This goes some way to recognising telehealth is not only an important tool in our pandemic response — it’s much needed in our health system.

COVID-19: a game changer for telehealth in Australia

In March, telehealth services were funded for all Australians under the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS).

The package covered phone and videoconsultations with GPs, specialists, nurse practitioners and allied health professionals (like physiotherapists, social workers and psychologists). This complemented existing MBS funding for medical videoconsultations for people in rural communities.

We saw a rapid uptake — more than 35% of MBS-funded consultations were conducted via tele- health in April 2020.

Real-time is largely what we’ve got in place now — clinical consultations via phone and videoconferencing.

During the pandemic, health professionals have heavily favoured telephone over videoconsultations. More than 91% of MBS-funded telehealth services are delivered by phone.

Thinking more broadly

Health systems around the world are not only battling the pandemic, but also the tsunami of chronic disease. So changes to the way we provide health care are inevitable.

In Australia, conditions like heart disease, stroke and diabetes lead to high rates of ill health and death.

We need strategies that inform patients about, and engage patients in, their own health care. We also need funding that supports services and health outcomes, rather than purely “fee for service” encounters.

Crucially, we need to think about how we can make changes to the health-care system to take advantage of all forms of telehealth.