The Australasian Telehealth Society has called on the Government to expand medicare for telehealth ahead of its annual meeting.
Delegates are gathering in Adelaide today for SFT-14, the "Successes and Failures in Telehealth" conference, and the fifth Annual Meeting of the Australasian Telehealth Society, which will be opened by the South Australian Health Minister, Jack Snelling.
Telehealth is the delivery of health care services at a distance, using information and communication technology.
This conference will showcase the achievements of doctors, nurses, psychologists and all healthcare providers in using telehealth to bringing healthcare to rural and remote areas and into people’s homes, to achieve better access to healthcare and improved health outcomes.
In 2011, the Australian Government put video consultations by specialists to rural Australia on Medicare.
This means that people in the bush can see a specialist by simply going to their local general practice, rather than having to travel to the city.
This initiative has supported around 230,000 telehealth consultations. More than twice this number was predicted, so the funding set aside has been underspent, and this gives capacity to extend telehealth to a broader range of health services.
"It is still only available in some areas and needs to be put into practice much more widely to make health outcomes more equal," according to the Society.
"More than 30 per cent of Australians live in rural and remote areas, but less than 1 per cent of medical specialist consultations are by telehealth.
"Improvements in broadband communication need to be harnessed to bring more health services to these areas."
In far west NSW, remote Western Australia and in the Northern Territory, life expectancy is more than 10 years below average, and suicide rates are more than double.
The Society has called for a list of reforms to be implemented.
Firstly, they would like to see increases to the range of telehealth services on the Medicare Benefits Schedule.
In particular: GPs should be able to initiate video consultations to patients in aged care facilities and to remote areas where there are no resident GPs.
They have also called for Allied health professionals, such as psychologists, dietitians, speech pathologists and others to be able to deliver care by telehealth to underserved areas.
According to the Society, a great deal can be done in eye care and skin care using clinical photography and sending images for specialist evaluation.
They would also like the Independent Hospital Pricing Authority, an organisation supported by the State/Territory and Federal governments, to start recording telehealth activities in hospitals and funding them appropriately.
Australasian Telehealth Society vice president, Dr Victoria Wade, said it was time for the Australian Government to step up to the plate and expand Medicare for telehealth.
"Over the past three years, many specialists have consulted with patients in rural areas by video communication, and some excellent work has been done, from cancer care, to psychiatry, to cardiology, and some really good outcomes produced, but telehealth is still a special case, and it needs to become part of the daily operations of healthcare everywhere," she said.
"A lot of health care is still stuck in last century’s processes and systems. Most of the time, there is no reason why patients should have to sit in a waiting room for three hours, or travel a day each way to see a specialist. When telehealth is implemented widely, then we will really be getting a health care system for the 21st Century.”