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Telehealth – avoiding the GP queue – but at a cost

We all know doctor wait times are getting out of control, with some locals waiting up to three months for a GP appointment.

There is an answer – telehealth consultations – but they come at a cost.

We take a look at the options.

Recently, we ran a story in the Barrier Truth detailing the issues GPs are facing. Not just here in Broken Hill, but across the country at the current point in time.

Three month wait times for a primary care consult at GP surgeries across Broken Hill are plaguing the system.

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The knock-on effect is being felt in Emergency Departments [ED] in the region as some people head to the hospital to get their prescriptions renewed, acquire a medical certificate, or get their non-emergency issues seen to.

All of this clogs up the system even further.

There is a service, which is being vastly underused, that could help alleviate some pressure on the GP system and EDs across Broken Hill and potentially Australia-wide.

Telehealth is the distribution of health-related services and information via electronic information and telecommunication technologies, if you want the official description.

Many of us became familiar with the way it works during Covid when doctor visits were at the very least problematic.

Essentially you talk to your doctor via video call, text or phone call – which allows long-distance patient and clinician contact, care, advice, reminders, education, intervention, monitoring, and remote admissions.

And of course, at a simple level, it allows you to get repeat prescriptions without sitting in a queue at a doctor’s surgery.

Over the past two years, Telehealth services have exploded in Australia. A quick online search will give you a dizzying array of options.

Prices range from the outrageous [$300 per virtual visit] all the way down to a $38 option.

The big question most people will want to know is can I receive a telehealth consult that is bulk billed by Medicare?

The answer, unfortunately, is not straight forward, and you need to be careful which service you choose because some cost more than others.

As an example, you can book a telehealth appointment at call-the-doctor.com.au, completely bulk billed with no out of pocket expense.

But when we tried to book an appointment, we were told it would cost us $50 up front because we weren’t in their service area. No mention of that online.

To some, $50 might be worth paying to avoid a trip to the emergency rooms, or waiting three months for an in-person GP visit.

But for others, $50 could mean the difference between buying groceries and receiving medical care.

Medicare-supported telehealth services are available with GPs, specialists, consultant physicians, nurse practitioners, participating midwives, allied health providers and dental practitioners.

A government spokesperson informed us that “… depending on a practitioner’s billing policy, patients may receive bulk billed services or face some out-of-pocket costs.”

If a GP service is on the Medicare Benefits Scheme [MBS], it will provide a rebate, but it might not cover the entire cost of a Telehealth consultation.

At a state level [hospitals], there are already many of what they call Virtual Care services.

A Far West Local Health District spokesperson described Virtual Care as a service that “safely connects patients with health professionals to help deliver care when and where it is needed, which can be potentially lifesaving in an emergency.”

The Virtual Care option, despite being a tremendous service, is not as comprehensive as Telehealth and is generally for specialist care.

“Virtual Care is a supplement to face-to-face consultation and offers more choice on how our patients can access care to suit their individual situation.

It is not a replacement for local clinicians,” says the spokesperson.

In June, the NSW Telestroke Service was also expanded to include the Broken Hill Health Service.

The innovative virtual care service provides 24/7 access to life-saving stroke diagnosis and treatment, connecting patients and local doctors with specialist stroke physicians in Sydney via video consultation.

For Virtual Care, there is no cost to you from your local health district. You may be asked to give consent for your healthcare professional to bulk bill Medicare – just like you would for in-person care.

The big question is this – is Telehealth a viable option that could ease the strain currently being felt by both primary care physicians and emergency departments across Broken Hill and, more broadly, the nation?

The answer is, yes, if you can afford it. All the telehealth services we contacted required some kind of out-of-pocket expense. This is something that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

The good news is it can cut out the long waiting list for a doctor’s appointment.

You can find information about medical services in your area, including whether they bulk bill or not, at www.healthdirect.gov.au.

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