RACGP survey finds GPs back adoption of telehealth

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The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners has released the results of a survey showing that GPs and patients are embracing telehealth consultations.

The survey found that many GPs are willing to adopt or continue using telehealth services if the temporary Medicare Benefits Schedule items stay in place beyond 30 September this year.

The July survey of more than 420 GPs found:

  • more than half (54 per cent) had undertaken telehealth consultations using video at least once;
  • the most common types of consultations undertaken via video are standard consultations, follow-up consultations, prescriptions and referrals, and mental health;
  • GPs who use video rather than telephone services report that it helps them assess the patient (26 per cent), find video to be more personal (19 per cent), and aids them in undertaking a physical examination of the patient (18 per cent); and,
  • the vast majority of respondents indicated they would continue to provide care via telehealth if the temporary COVID-19 MBS items are extended beyond 30 September, with 37 per cent of those who currently only use phone consultations stating they would try video consultations.

The new results follow an RACGP survey of more than 1,100 GPs in April showing that 99 per cent of GPs are offering consultations via video or telephone.

That survey also found that the vast majority of GP practices – almost 97 per cent – are still offering face to face consultations, providing patients with flexible access options to seek the care they need.

Victorian-based GP Dr Steven Kaye, who is deputy chair of the RACGP expert committee on practice technology and management, welcomed the results of the latest survey.

We campaigned so strongly for the expansion of telehealth and telephone consultations for good reason. These services allow patients with a variety of health conditions to talk on the phone or via online platforms with their GP while minimising the risk of transmitting or spreading the COVID-19 virus.

“It is great news that so many GPs are transforming the way they operate and adopting video technology.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many patients delaying or avoiding a trip to the GP. That is perfectly understandable given anxieties around contracting the virus and GPs from across Australia have reported significant drops in patient numbers.

“A June 2020 survey of more than 700 people found 32% of respondents had delayed or avoided a visit to a GP in the last three months. We must reverse this trend immediately.

“If not, we may see an increase in health concerns emerge in coming months because patients have avoided seeing their GP and worsened a condition that could have been treated more effectively earlier.

“This is why using telehealth is so important. If patients are not comfortable visiting their GP for a face to face consultation but are confident using online platforms it provides the perfect solution. A consultation can take place without the patient leaving their own home.

“GPs are responsible for care for many patients from cradle to grave and it’s vital that people of all ages and backgrounds have their health concerns addressed right away.”

Dr Kaye said the survey did find there was room for improvement.

“A quarter of respondents report that they don’t have the necessary hardware or software to use video technology. The survey also indicated adoption of video consultations requires additional support and education for GPs and the practice team.

“The RACGP is strongly in favour of Medicare-subsidised telehealth services being made permanent. We want to continue working with government to help GPs and patients embrace telehealth and resolve the obstacles some GPs have identified.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has forced healthcare to adapt in many ways and we are here to help our GPs make the transition to video technology.

“Telehealth is a huge benefit for patients so if GPs want to use the technology we must ensure that they have the infrastructure and training needed to do so successfully.

“It’s vital to remember though that if patients are not confident using video technologies that is okay because an old-fashioned telephone will work just fine. What is most important is that you don’t delay or avoid seeking care from your GP, we are there to help.”

The Victorian GP said that the RACGP was working constructively with the Federal Government to make this a reality.

“There is strong demand for flexible telehealth and telephone consultations to continue. It’s not just about flexibility and convenience, telehealth is often the most appropriate and efficient medium to provide a service when a patient is already known to the practice.

“Patients are aware of the technology and how it can benefit them. One in five respondents reported that 61% to 80% of their patients have requested a telehealth consultation."