Australian government launches telehealth initiative

Starting today, Australia is taking an active role in promoting telehealth.

As part of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s $620 million telehealth initiative, the Australian government is funding video hook-ups between medical specialists and patients. The nation’s Medicare program is offering 50-percent bonuses to specialists who adopt telehealth technology and 35-percent bonuses to doctors, nurses and midwives who participate in video consults with patients.

The initiative – which Gillard had promised to enact during her election campaign last year – has the backing of the Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA), which said it has “real potential” to improve access to specialists for rural and remote Australians.

“Currently many rural patients are forced to travel hundreds and even thousands of kilometers for specialist consultations, given the significant shortage of specialists in rural and regional Australia” RDAA Vice President Peter Rischbieth told reporters. “These patients face significant travel and accommodation costs, and long periods of time away from work, in getting to and from these consultations, which can be required at regular intervals for many conditions.”

But while offering “incentives” to providers to implement the technology and “rebates” to physicians, nurses and midwives for their time spent in consultations, the real question remains: Will providers see enough of a benefit to continue offering telehealth services after the government support dries up?

As part of her National Digital Economy Strategy, Gillard is pushing for roughly 500,000 telehealth consultations per year within four years – a process expected to be made easier as the nation moves to adopt a National Broadband Network.

"The NBN should provide us high availability, high speed connections, which will allow us to conduct both video consultations, look at images such as radiology images and also, with high definition cameras, be able to see high definition images the same as watching a high definition television," said Nathan Pinskier, a general practitioner in Melbourne who serves as the e-health spokesman for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.

'Tyranny of distance'

While Pinskier was speaking to an Australian television station on Thursday, Gillard, in Darwin in the northern part of the country, and Health Minister Nicola Roxon, far to the south in Adelaide, were demonstrating a telemedicine consult to reporters and film crews. The interviews were part of a flurry of television, print and web news stories released to promote today’s launch of the initiative.

"I think the change is probably going to be an incremental one but, over time as we understand the utility of telehealth and how it fits into practice, it will make some substantial differences, particularly for patients and consumers in rural and remote locations, where they suffer the tyranny of distance," Pinskier said.

According to the RACGP, 96 percent of the nation’s doctors use computers for some clinical purpose. To that end, the organization urged its members not to rush out and buy telehealth equipment until it can complete an implementation guide. The group is also working on a set of telehealth standards for its members, which it expects to complete in October.

“We encourage all GPs to wait for guidance from the College before purchasing equipment or engaging in contractual arrangements with providers,” said Mike Civil, chairman of the RACGP’s Telehealth Standards Taskforce, in a statement issued last week. “The RACGP is currently reviewing the different technologies and connection options to provide a choice from a range of vendor equipment as a means of ensuring interoperability between them.”

While the Australian Medical Association offered support for the initiative, Vice President Geoffrey Dobb said the organization is concerned that, once the four-year project runs its course and the federal funding concludes, providers will find it too expensive to keep it up – or they’ll pass the extra costs on to their patients.

"After the government's incentive payments stop in four years' time, the Medicare rebates will be much lower than the true cost of providing the service," he warned.