August 20, 2013

Telehealth makes quality healthcare more accessible

Telehealth could provide many Australians with easier access to healthcare, monitor chronic illnesses more effectively and assist the ageing population. Dr James Freeman (pictured) founded GP2U to remove logistical obstacles to the uptake of telehealth, but other challenges remain.

A new business model is revolutionising Australian healthcare and demonstrating how technological innovation can bring about wholesale change in a sector.

Telehealth has the potential to deliver healthcare more effectively and efficiently, and to provide easier access to a wider range of services, particularly to those who live in remote locations or who find it difficult to leave home.

“Our Skype2Doctor platform allows any GP to offer remote video conferencing consultations to any patient,” says Dr James Freeman, founder of GP2U. “Patients can see a GP online and then pick up prescription medications from a local participating pharmacy. We see this as an important step towards getting GPs to integrate telehealth into their day-to-day practice.”

Remote monitoring could enable the growing number of elderly people and people with a chronic illness to spend time more time at home rather than in hospital or residential care. And telehealth can also provide a more convenient option for people like the ‘fly in, fly out’ workers on mine sites in Western Australia.

“This has already been recognised as a group which is missing out on medical care because of a particular work pattern,” Freeman explains. “When you’re doing seven days on, seven days off, four days of each cycle are effectively lost to travel. That doesn’t leave much time to schedule an appointment with a GP and video conferencing can provide a much more convenient alternative.”

Logistical challenges

In its recently-released standards for video consultations, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners states that: “The efficient coordination of patient bookings, clinicians’ availability and properly-functioning equipment is considered a top priority for safe, high quality healthcare delivered by video consultation.”

Freeman established GP2U with the aim of solving the logistical issues that could stand in the way of telehealth uptake. “Our mission is to make high quality healthcare more accessible by using technology to bridge the gaps that separate patients from doctors and other healthcare providers,” he says.

While the spread of broadband internet and Skype was making teleconferencing a technical possibility for most Australians, there was still a problem with delivering medication. “As GPs write a prescription in about 70 percent of their consultations this is fundamental to the success of any telehealth service,” says Freeman. “By developing relationships with some of Australia’s leading pharmacists we have now made it possible for patients to pick up their medication or, if that’s physically difficult for them, we can arrange to have it delivered by courier or mail.”

Limited rebates

At the moment, Medicare rebates for telehealth are limited to some consultations with specialist doctors. GPs can only claim a rebate if they’re physically sitting alongside a patient during one of these eligible specialist consultations. “I think this is a pity because most of the medical care in Australia is provided by GPs,” says Freeman. “There are about 125 million GP consultations a year compared with about 20 million consultations with specialists.”

The Federal Government’s telehealth initiative offers incentives for aged care providers to set up video conferencing facilities. The Australian Medical Association suggests that adding Medicare rebates for GP video consultations with the residents of these facilities would improve the efficiency of providing follow-up care by GPs and ensure full use is made of the existing facilities.

“The primary beneficiary of telehealth is the patient, so you’re largely dependent on the altruism of GPs to help their patients in this way,” says Freeman. “Until they have more encouragement and motivation to make telehealth part of their daily practice I don’t think we’re going to see a great deal of change.”

Find out more about providing telehealth services and GP2U.