Telehealth consultations and GP activity during COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic was the catalyst to rapid change within the healthcare system as services adapted to pandemic restrictions. Telehealth, administered via both phone and videoconference platforms, provided a key strategy for reducing widespread transmission between individuals, and led to the introduction of policy changes within the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS).
Work by PCHSS Research Stream 1.3, led by Keshia De Guzman examined the impact of two policy changes on general practitioners’ (GP) activity data. Policy 1 was introduced on the 30th of March 2020 and introduced additional COVID-19 telehealth funding for GPs, beyond the specialist consultations that were already subsidised. In an attempt to increase the use of videoconferences – which researchers found only comprised 3% of all monthly telehealth consultations – GP phone consultations were limited to under 20 minutes if the MBS rebate was to be claimed.
Researchers analysed GP activity data from January 2019 to December 2021 to uncover how the use of telehealth changed in this time. They found that after the initial policy change that introduced telehealth funding into the MBS, phone consultations increased by approximately four million consults in the first month. A similar increase was found for video consultations. Coupled with a decrease in in-person activity, these findings highlight the popularity of telehealth consultations during this period.
However, this increase was not sustained, and a steady decrease in telehealth activity occurred over the next 14 months. The introduction of the second policy to encourage videoconference consultations was initially successful, but the rate of all telehealth activity still decreased overall. Therefore, it seems that funding itself was not enough to encourage lasting use of telehealth through these pandemic months.
De Guzman and colleagues’ study clearly shows that although funding may be an important factor for healthcare service provision, other factors such as accessibility, consumer preferences, quality of care, and type of clinical presentation should also be considered when adopting a long-term telehealth strategy. Whilst the government’s decision to provide funding for telehealth services was a crucial step, it is only one of many steps in developing a truly sustainable telehealth system post-pandemic.
Summary by Shalini Wijekulasuriya