What is the future of telehealth in Australia? Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the healthcare industry has seen a rise in telehealth. Telehealth can be a game-changer for clinicians seeking new ways to serve patients, and for patients seeking new ways to get medical help.
Although telehealth has yet to become mainstream in Australia’s health services, with the impact of COVID-19 on people’s livelihoods and their health, providing healthcare remotely has become an essential aspect of health delivery. So, here’s a closer look at telehealth, the impact it’s had on healthcare, and how to successfully integrate and expand telehealth through acute health services.
What is telehealth?
In the Australian healthcare system, telehealth refers to the use of phones and videoconferencing technologies to conduct medical consultations between specialists and
patients or between patients and their GP or other health workers. Audio and visual information is exchanged in real-time, and prescription medications and certificates are available.
For Aussies who live far away from a health facility or cannot easily leave their house, telehealth gives them the opportunity to readily access health services via phone or videoconferencing. In the time of COVID-19, telehealth services can also help protect healthcare professionals, their staff, and patients from catching the deadly and contagious coronavirus disease.
What’s more, telehealth can also refer to the use of video conferencing technologies to provide online exercise classes for people with a personal trainer or expert instructor. Taking exercise classes online with a tablet or computer is one of the best ways to stay safe and active at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How telehealth has affected healthcare?
Telehealth is still not widely used in Australia, but recent changes in the use of telehealth following the pandemic have made a positive impact on health services and patients. For example, after the COVID-19 telehealth program was introduced at Western Health, there has been:
- Substantial uptake and engagement by organizational staff regarding virtual modes of healthcare service delivery.
- An alternative model of patient care during periods of isolation.
- Less travel to health facilities due to the pandemic.
- A reduction in the number of people who didn’t attend clinic appointments.
Although there’s no formal assessment of the impact on and experience of patients, the informal experiences of the staff and patients at Western Health with the new telehealth program reinforced their belief that telehealth should become a mainstream component of their health system. Staff were mostly positive about its implementation, found the platform easy to use, and both patients and staff preferred videoconferencing to phone consultations because they can see each other.
The integration and expansion of telehealth The implementation of telehealth in Australia has been slow and fragmented, with telehealth representing less than 1% of all specialist consultations provided. The successful integration and expansion of telehealth across Australia’s acute health services will depend on the following key factors:
1. Involving patients
According to a survey, 88% of Australians believe that telemedicine will see a major increase in healthcare for those aged 50 and over. This is why, the social, organizational, and tech factors that affect patients’ and clinicians’ adoption of telehealth tools must be considered.
When serving people with low socioeconomic status, low health literacy, mental health disorders, and chronic and complex conditions, it’s important to avoid making them feel lonely, stressed, or anxious as it could worsen physical symptoms. Patient involvement is crucial in addressing the risk of health equity that stems from the digital divide.
2. Upskilling and training
When transitioning to telehealth, skill gaps may be identified. Certain capabilities will be required for optimal use of the available technologies through complex role changes, delivering tasks in a different environment, changes in education delivery, and online and simulation teaching.
Health services should also become a registered training organization so that they can provide an accredited qualification for telehealth after completion of the minimum training and experiential requirements.
Telehealth can better integrate primary care with health services, but more flexible funding systems between the two is essential. Funding is also required for meeting challenges like ongoing expenses, acquiring and maintaining technology, training staff, and reaching out to people who can’t adapt or transition to telehealth consultations. Ongoing funding is also needed to ensure capabilities training, logistics and optimal platforms, and interoperability.
The benefits of using telehealth
Telehealth is seeing a resurgence as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and has the potential to deliver many benefits to both patients and clinicians alike. Telehealth can improve patient engagement with remote monitoring, expand access to care and reach more patients, cut patient costs, help provide medical and health education, and improve patient satisfaction.
As for clinicians, telehealth can improve clinical workflows and increase practice efficiency and revenue, reduce practice overhead and patient no-shows, and improve healthcare quality. Overall, whether or not COVID-19 subsides, there’s no doubt that telehealth is a safe and convenient method of providing and seeking care, which can help it go mainstream in Australia’s health services.